Death is quite an elephant to have in the room. And we’re going to acknowledge it, look at it, talk about it.
MYTH 1: Talking about death will make death happen sooner.
This is called “magical thinking” – a skewed understanding of cause and effect that falsely correlates simple thoughts to unrelated events and sometimes denies reality altogether. Magical thinking is prevalent in childhood, i.e. “I hit my baby brother, my mother was mad at me, and I wished she would go away. Later she tripped and went to the hospital for stitches. I caused that to happen with my thoughts.” During moments of stress or grief in adulthood, magical thinking obscures rational thought. A previously unsuperstitious person, waiting for the results of a biopsy, may make an erroneous connection between the one time she wished she could get more sympathy from her partner, and the lump she found later that month. In the grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion writes about the first year after the death of her husband of nearly 40 years as shocking and surreal. She describes vast stretches where she didn’t believe that he had, in fact, died of a massive heart attack in their living room. She believed he would be back soon from wherever he was.
Many of the books read for this project feature stories from dying people. They write eloquently about how relieved they were to be able to talk about their impending death to caring ears, whether it was a family member, friend, medical professional, or hospice worker. Talking about dying can bring clarity, closure, and meaning to an unknown time. It can bring those things even when there is no terminal diagnosis on the horizon.
Death is mostly governed by forces out of our control and, as powerful as we humans think ourselves to be, we cannot change the course of death through thinking. Talking about death will not make death happen. Say it again for the people in the back:
Talking about death will not make death happen sooner.
Talking about suicide with potentially suicidal people will not “encourage” suicide (sample study 1 sample study 2). With appropriate compassion and professional referrals, talking about suicide can be enlightening, therapeutic, and life-affirming. Become familiar with the signs and symptoms of suicidality: National Institute of Mental Health; National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
MYTH 2: We don’t talk about death or grief much in Western society.
We do, just not as explicitly as this website. Grief is found in songs about heartbreak, movies about a family falling apart, advertisements for medical procedures that are meant to delay the inevitable. There are thousands of resources about grief, death, dying, and loss, if you know where to look.
The subtext of many, many conversations is death. In coffee shops and private blogs and under the covers we talk about love and life and legacy: Am I loved? Have I loved? Have I done enough? Am I enough? Did I make a difference? Am I known? These topics all touch on the persistent striving we have to make the most out of life before we die.
Many successful communities have sprung up around contemplating and discussing death (The Order of the Good Death, The Dinner Party, the Death Positive Movement, Death over Dinner, Death Cafe). Hospice and palliative care centers are on the rise and end-of-life care is on the minds of many healthcare providers, clergy, and caregivers. The conversation is happening if you want to join, but, again, you have to know where to look.
Talking about death begins with each person exploring the topic in themselves and with others. Read a book, listen to a podcast, start a conversation, join a table…who knows what could come of it. Want to learn more about the philosophy behind death denial? Click here
MYTH 3: Death and grief are awful. Don’t sugarcoat it.
I get it. Death gets a bad rap. Grief isn’t very glamorous. Why try to polish something so awful? Because you will grieve and die and you deserve preparation based on the collective wisdom of thinkers, live-ers, and die-ers. Because grief is universal and as informative an experience as anything else you will go through. Because death anxiety is not universal or required in order to live. Because you deserve space, time, and resources to think about what it all means to you. Because strengthening the death-thinking muscle can enhance your life. Many studies support the notion that contemplating your death regularly can add meaning to your life. It can help you save money and make you more creative.
Similar to the debunked myth above about how “we don’t talk about grief enough,” this one is based on the false notion that no one is talking about death because it’s too awful. Don’t confuse correlation with causation – silence does not mean willful dismissal; it may indicate a lack of literacy or practice around the topic. Based on my research, many people are intrigued by their own grief and want to talk about it so someone else can validate it.
From Academy of Ideas: “While the benefits of contemplating death are immense, few adopt this practice. Most people are of the attitude that such thoughts should be avoided and pushed out of awareness. Death however, can be compared to the sun. Both are integral components of life but staring at either for too long only leads to debilitation – damaged eyes in the case of the sun and paralyzing anxiety in the case of death. Turning away completely from death, however, can be just as debilitating. For as the rays of the sun are needed to sustain life, periodic reflection on death seems necessary to imbue one’s life with a spark of urgency and an appreciation for the present that so many in the modern-day lack. ‘It is only in the face of death’ wrote Saint Augustine, ‘that man’s self is born.’
Some Resources on Death
Organizations That are Talking about Death
- Death Over Dinner www.deathoverdinner.org – “An uplifting interactive adventure that transforms the seemingly difficult conversation [about death] into one of deep engagement, insight and empowerment. We invite you to gather friends and family and fill a table.”
- Order of the Good Death www.orderofthegooddeath.com – “The Order is about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”
- Tips to consider when deepening your relationship to death: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/fear-of-death
- Ask A Mortician YouTube series, with the founder of the Order of the Good Death: https://www.youtube.com/user/OrderoftheGoodDeath
For even more resources, check out the resources page.