Where Culture Fails The Dying and the Grieving… It Fails Us All
I and many others in the community that discuss death observe that the dominant western culture is often treacherous when death and grief occurs. After thousands of conversations with terminal and grieving people, I see the patterns and wish to gently but persistently call them out here. To me, this is a matter of social justice for the health of humankind.
The denial of death and grief is a formidable force and it may be tugging on you right now. Stay with me here, if you can.
Now I need to admit that there certainly are sub-cultures that have better systems for supporting dying and grief. I applaud those efforts and systems. However, most of us do not find ourselves in these smaller, healthier systems. So I will be referring to the “dominant culture” henceforth to make that distinction.
My hunch is that the main problem is a dualism and illusion. Our western perspective may find many corrective beliefs in the eastern perspective as a set of constructs to consider.
Example: In the Japanese zen tradition, there is a word: Sho-ji. This can be understood as birth-death, where no dualism exists. The 13th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen suggests that birth is understood as No-birth, and death is understood as No-death. If you search for a buddha (meaning, an ideal state of intellectual and ethical perfection) outside birth and death, it will be like trying to see the Big Dipper while you are facing south.
As Frank Ostaseski, founder of the first zen hospice, has said, “There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two. We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death. Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most."
I will describe three ways that the dominant culture fails the dying and the grieving - and eventually everyone - and ways to think differently, for your consideration:
Our Dominant Culture Values Achievement
The Truth: The Value Of Life Is Embedded in Each Person
We gain merit within our society by offering our usefulness and achievement to the system, we are often 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.
Our society adores us when we get married, have babies, get jobs, build homes, buy cars… and on and on.
The problem is that this dominant cultural narrative does not include things like: endings, illnesses, tragedies, losses, closures and death. Loss and death are - in a spiritless culture - covertly considered as a vacuum, a waste, a destruction or a regression.
Our dominant 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 years of exhaustion from care-giving.
If those who keep adding to their empires deserve credit for all their successes in our culture, then those who have lost so much must surely, covertly, deserve all their losses, pain, and shame. A lot of great things have been written recently regarding shame. Shame may be thought of as the sensation of blame and guilt for not holding up the prevailing cultural standards around us.
Death is a deep mystery, and a demanding process on all who are closely involved. It is the hardest work that we do as humans. It can be painful, confusing, erratic and chaotic. And - in a short-sighted view - when it is over we have nothing to show for it. Dying and grieving processes may appear to be a waste of time, resources, potential.
The dying and the grieving are vulnerable in a system like this. They may be abandoned and ignored. They may be briefly tokenized, put on pedestals for a short time by employers and social groups to show they are compassionate and caring. Or the dying and the grieving can be greeted with a short spate of drama. Compassion fatigue quickly moves in, people end up being more critical of the dying and the grieving…
In all the conversations I have had, I observe that the dying and the grieving are often losing career jobs or community status. 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.
And not to state the obvious, but 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 - (and I am breaking from the alliteration by adding)-street, gutter… 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 attributes people’s merit due to their achievement will neglect or even deny the value embedded within each person, no matter the level of contribution at the moment.
We, here, honor the 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 dominant culture is to work toward dying with safety and sacredness and to grieve with courage and honesty. We see you. We hear you. We honor you.
Our Dominant Culture Values Speed and Autonomy
Death & Grief Are Slow and Inter-Dependent Processes
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.
The dominant culture is already disappointed that death and grief has manifested. 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” or giving “grief relief” for a price tag. Many books. Many expensive retreats.
Further, the dominant culture celebrates individual achievements as the most intoxicating narratives. The belief is that 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. Due to the focus on individualism, people show up for a week to the accompany the dying or the grieving, but reliably within a month there is a stunning lack of community presence. These dying and grieving processes be very slow - it can require more patience than we often predict.
Losing place in the cultural fabric of our lives can literally kill us, maim us or, at the least, 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. Compassion fatigue is real for most of our community members.
I want to posit: 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 situation or 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 while they enjoy the rest of the posts, 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 - each person’s time is separated are to be squeezed for maximum output.
We do not see how interdependent we are and how the gift of slow, compassionate time is what is required. Love is both the motivation and the destination.
Our Dominant Culture Values Optimism
Dying and Grief Display Our Mortality
We are immersed in a forgetting 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.”
The dying and grieving deserve compassion, rather than contempt.
These topics remain taboo, shunned 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 report - and I mean REALLY often -that regaining any type of normal life takes much, much longer than they ever could have imagined. And isolation does not help. Compassionate community helps.
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 among us cannot be a true instrument of justice. This creates a level of social death.
In certain life seasons, to be human is to be vulnerable, to lie fallow, to express need, to hurt, to grieve, to die. It is true for me. It is true for you.
If we are going to build strong communities we need to also build strategies that recognizes, supports and affirms 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 who are vulnerable with the processes of dying and grieving – 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. The dying and the grieving have a gift to give, who will receive it? Death is not a full stop, it is a moment within a whole host of moments, but one that brings clarity and illumination.
We need to be having more conversations about death and grief. With all kinds of people.
We need to take the sacred task of caring for one another in our vulnerable and transitional states as a sacred teacher rather than a technical task to be jobbed out to professionals. Healing is found by moving toward suffering rather than running from it or distracting ourselves from it. Compassion runs toward suffering.
We need to believe that we are capable of a creating a just culture that transforms rather than diminishes all who are in the seasons of engaging with death and grief because, in truth - we have no other choice. I will die. You will die. We all will grieve.
If you open your heart - there are riches beyond measure here.
Alive and Mortal Mission: We gather online as a new kind of community to seed a new culture of people who can fully express both deep understanding of death, grief and hope. "Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world." - Rumi
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