Where Culture Fails The Dying and the Grieving… It Fails Us All
Our modern culture has given us so many advantages. We have diverse ways to communicate, to find like-minded people and seek our truths.
But, I believe that the dominant culture often creates a treacherous set of conditions when death and grief occurs.
This culture that we live under is a canopy of thick, dry kindling wood of dysfunction that can ignite around us when we are dying and when we are grieving.
By now, you might be tempted to switch to something else to read or look at some cat videos. The denial of death and grief is a formidable force. Stay with me here.
I will be calling our western culture a “canopy-culture” henceforth because there are certainly sub-cultures that have better systems for supporting death and grief. I applaud those efforts and systems. However, this is not the dominant system.
I will describe three ways that the dominant canopy-culture fails the dying and the grieving - and eventually everyone - for your consideration:
Our Canopy-Culture Values Achievement VERSUS The Value Of Life Is Not In Production
We gain merit within our society by offering our usefulness and achievement to the system, measured by our production.
This shared vision of achievement can be invigorating and enlivening when we are young, when our lives are ahead of us and when we have access to limitless possibilities.
This society adores us when we get married, have babies, get jobs, build homes, buy cars… and on and on.
The problem is that this Canopy-Culture narrative does not include endings, illnesses, tragedies, losses, closures, and death. Or, when we make too much trouble or require too much effort for too long. Or are unattractive due to pain. Or are not capable of producing - even if for a brief time.
The dying and the bereaved do not fit because loss and death are - in a spiritless culture - regarded as a vacuum, a waste, a destruction or a regression.
Our Canopy-Culture promotes the upward trajectory - not to be interrupted or thwarted by an accident, illness or a misfortune, not to be fumbled by foggy thinking that can result from grief or months and years of exhaustion from care-giving.
Do those who keep growing and adding to their empires deserve all their successes in our culture? If so, then those who have lost so much must surely, even if subtly, deserve all their losses, pain, and shame.
Much has been written recently regarding shame. Shame may be thought of as the experience of blame and guilt for not sustaining the prevailing cultural standards around us. When there is a death, there is a time period, sometimes before the death and often well after the death where resources (financial, emotional and physical) are allocated for the ending of a life and its aftermath.
In this light, in this culture… The dying and grieving processes can create an undercurrent sensation of wasting time, resources, potential.
Are you really doing enough to be worthy of the expense, compassion, and effort by others? Is this investment going to pay off?
The culture often will punish those that take that journey toward death and grief earlier than the norm.
The dying and the grieving are vulnerable in a system like this. At first they may be tokenized, put on pedestals by employers and social groups as examples of how the collective of people are compassionate and caring, or they can zealously display enlivened feelings of drama in an otherwise emotionally numb social structure.
Yet sometimes, harshly, those in power and those who need to pick up extra for the person who cannot function at 100%... the dying and the grieving may be secretly watched for errors in productivity and weakness of energy and mind - and thus taken down, even losing career jobs or community status.
I am not saying that people with a terminal diagnosis and grieving people shouldn’t be held accountable for their job performance. However, I’ve noticed that they are rarely held to the same degree of scrutiny or accountability for the same mistakes. The number of people I have seen laid off during these types of situations - boy, that should be a statistical study for some justice-seeking organization.
People, particularly when we are all financially stressed in a recession, can be unaware at best and - at worst - can use leverage against dying and grieving people. Those whose have not been shattered by a diagnosis or bad news, those who have not been drained financially by rough conditions, those who have not been ravaged by grief can .
It’s also more often those who are distressed economically who suffer disproportionately in dying and grieving process. Mark Twain’s famous suggestion that death is “the great leveler”, does not apply on this side of the tombstone. How and where you die - home, hospice or hospital - is heavily dependent on your wealth, geographical location, and whether you have decent health insurance. Grief support can often include a hefty price tag (which is why Alive and Mortal is free and we seek benefactors to support our work to give back to the community.)
A society that thinks of people as having merit due to their achievement of rock-solid empires will neglect or even deny the profound and labor-intensive process of dying and grief, the hard-fought lessons of the dying, the clarion wisdom of the life cycle, the sacred nature of illness and aging and the brilliant beauty of grief.
Some of the hardest work people will ever do in this Canopy-Culture is to work toward dying with safety and sacredness and to grieve with courage and honesty.
Our Canopy-Culture Values Speed and Autonomy VERSUS Death & Grief Are Slow and Inter-Dependent
To clarify, even a sudden death will more often than not have a longer story of how it suddenly occurred - that includes factors such as violent cultural problems, lack of community resources and support, poverty of information and so forth.
This Canopy-Culture is already disappointed that death and grief has manifested. There was always a nutritional supplement that was overlooked, a mental process that was avoided, or drug that could have made a difference. The tyranny of quick solutions for dying and grieving are endless and a lot of money is made by charlatans that offer quick healing for illness, tragedy and sorrow. After Brian died I received perhaps as many as 40 emails with cancer fighting advice, thanks. And many grief groups reached out that touted moving on and beating grief for a price tag. Many books. Many retreats.
Further, the Canopy-Culture views individual achievements as the most intoxicating narratives. Everyone is capable of building fortresses and empires. There is a forgetting of community and inter-dependence and a blind eye to our entitlements and privileges.
Meeting basic survival needs is a far more pressing priority for the dying and grieving just at the moment when their need for community and connection escalates. They are the anti-narrative to the Canopy-Culture.
This is when the Canopy-Culture fails yet again and retracts. Even if its members show up for a week to the accompany the dying or the grieving, reliably within a month there is a stunning lack of community presence.
Losing place in the cultural fabric of our lives can literally kill us, maim us or weaken us. We seem to have placed a very short time stamp on support. There seems to be an unspoken expectation that after some time, everyone will simply get on with life. This concept is wrecking our entire culture.
If we are unable to die and grieve in community, it is nearly impossible to find safety.
This is the only characteristic that unites all humans - that we will die - it is what unites us all at our core.
I have known of numerous people who have openly posted regarding their condition on social media and been hassled for it. Consequently you will find many closed and secret groups online for people with terminal diagnosis and grief stories because of the hostility people have toward having their newsfeed present something emotionally challenging to them over their latte and Sunday paper.
Another telling indication of this societal norm is the traditions around employment leave for illness, caregiving and bereavement in this country. They are abysmal. Earth shattering circumstances still only garner a few days of adjustment. Many employers will not allow employees to pool sick, vacation or bereavement leave for people with catastrophic situations. This ties back to the first characteristic mentioned - achievement and production are highly valued in our culture.
Our Canopy-Culture Values Optimism And Safety VERSUS Death and Grief Display Mortality
There is a forgetting in the Canopy-Culture and a thick denial - we ignore that death and grief will be an experience we all will face eventually.
As Ernest Becker said, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
Decent people die and grieve and deserve compassion, rather than contempt.
These topics remain taboo, shunned as legitimate topics in polite circles. We continue to have a strained relationship with the concepts - and realities - of death and grief.
The medical profession both supports and is tyrannized by this system. In a 2008 study of chronic heart failure, people were shown to overestimate their life expectancy by a full three years. This kind of optimism was also shown in a 2011 study of lung cancer patients who were deemed to have inaccurate perceptions of the purpose of their treatment (i.e. cure versus palliation) and their chances of mid to long-term survival. Our tendency to think we will “beat the odds” may result in not being properly prepared for death.
Grieving people often - and I mean REALLY often - report that recovery of any normal version of a feeling life takes much longer than they ever could have imagined, if at all.
Taboo or not, death and grief are part of a conversation we all need to have. If nothing else, having more conversation about death and grief could provide opportunities for insight - insight that would benefit us during the end of life. No one should become totally alone while vulnerable and suffering during these moments.
Denial has its advantages – protecting us from things we are not ready to face. The time to discuss death and grief are now, ahead of the crisis moments. If we continue to stay in denial, the outcomes will not be as kind or loving as they could be.
Finally, Social Death Can Be Real
If culture is failing dying and grieving people, then it’s failing us all. It is only a matter of time before death will head toward each person in its trademark unexpected way.
Any system that further marginalizes the most vulnerable cannot be a true instrument of justice. This creates a social death.
In certain seasons, to be human is to be vulnerable, to lie fallow, to express need, to hurt, to grieve, to die.
If we are going to build strong communities we need to also build strategies that recognize and affirm the lives of dying and grieving people. A community that takes into account the existence of death and grief and makes space for it has a chance to become a vibrant and relevant culture.
We need to be wary of the ways in which cultural systems, both formal and informal, can be used to manipulate and exploit individuals – and we need to question systems that exploit people or treat them as disposable.
We need to value one another – each and every person who makes up our society regardless of where we are in the life cycle – as precious, as sacred, as flawed, as essential.
We need to believe that we are capable of a creating a justice that transforms instead of diminishes because we have no other choice. I will die. You will die. We all will grieve.