Let’s talk about death.
No, seriously. I’ll bring snacks.
When someone is expecting a baby, it’s seen as a safe and pleasant topic of conversation, embraced by most. Family, friends, coworkers, even strangers join the expecting moms and dads in the celebration, investing their money, time, and energy to prepare, welcoming this new phase in life.
A new phase in my life started after my mom passed away last year. Unlike a pregnancy, grief is mostly invisible. But like a new or soon-to-be parent, I was overtaken by this new experience. There was nothing else I wanted to talk about. Yet, nobody in my circle seemed to welcome this topic of conversation. Friends and even family members were trying to sway me away from the subject matter. Was I supposed to keep grief to myself?
Apparently so. According to the Dying Matters coalition, 8 out of 10 people are uncomfortable talking about dying and death.
My first day back at work, I found that out the hard way. Not knowing where I had been the past week, an unsuspecting coworker asked how my vacation had been. Surprised that the news had not spread through the office, I blankly said, “My mom died.” The look on his face, his mumbled condolences, and his hasty steps out the door made me feel like I did something wrong. From then on, I figured it would just be best to force a smile and say I was fine.
Hiding my all-consuming emotions left me feeling isolated. I went back to my daily routine as if nothing had happened, and nobody asked any questions. At home, I wasn’t able to keep the facade up for very long. The lid blew off of the pressure cooker that I had become.
I accused my husband—the world, really—of trivializing my loss by pretending it wasn’t there. It was then that my husband confessed he had googled “how to deal with grieving people,” because he didn’t know what to do or say to me either. Google’s advice was to avoid mentioning anything that could upset someone and try to distract them away from their pain.
Eek. That was the worst recommendation Google could have given for my particular case. But it did explain what was happening around me.
My husband’s confession made me realize that until I’d been through grief myself, I was that person stammering well-meaning phrases, like “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” or, worse, avoiding the grieving person altogether, because I simply didn’t know what to say. In the case of my coworker, the fear of upsetting someone in public—especially around the water cooler—is legitimate and can leave us paralyzed.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Are we letting discomfort prevent us from being there for someone who needs our support now more than ever?
It became clear to me that by hiding my grief, I was a part of the problem. How can we come together, break the cycle of silence, and bring the conversation about death into the light?
One of the best initiatives I found was the Death Cafe. People of all ages meet up to express and explore their views on death while enjoying coffee and a piece of cake. Initially started in the United Kingdom in 2004, 8,737 Death Cafes have popped up in 65 countries so far, showing that there is in fact a need for these conversations. Death Cafes are open for anybody to host, sharing a common mission: “We all meet simply as people who are going to die.”
Similarly, the creators of Death over Dinner saw the need to bring together loved ones, friends, and even strangers to have the conversation America was not having. Starting small in 2013, helping families and loved ones discuss the end of life topic over a sit-down meal, over the past six years it has evolved to a variety of dinner topics like “I’m grieving, and I want to talk about it,” or “Someone I love is grieving, and I don’t know what to do.”
Both initiatives are based around the discovery that simply starting the conversation is the hardest part. Just by creating a safe space and food to focus on that initial awkwardness is taken away. In her book Talking About Death Won’t Kill You, death educator Kathy Kortes-Miller, PhD, agrees that with the help of an icebreaker, even perfect strangers will bond over the shared experience within minutes. Her book provides several conversation starters if you’re interested in trying this at home, but a movie can work just as well.
Once the ice is broken, death proves not to be the feared doom-and-gloom topic people are afraid to continue. Former hospice physician Karen Wyatt adds that it’s not uncommon for people to use humor: “Laughter can help us relate to one another and feel comfortable together so we can listen more openly and with less resistance. It helps us get over the idea that death is always scary or horrible or tragic.”
The takeaway? Just start talking. Or start listening. Whichever side you’re on. Opening up to my husband was the key to reconnecting. He, like all my loved ones, wanted to be there, but lacked the tools. I asked him to simply be there, acknowledge, listen, and realize that there aren’t any solutions for this unfixable problem named death.
What about at work? Is talking about death still too morbid a topic around the water cooler?
It doesn’t have to be. Your time and attention are the most important offerings to a person in grief. Give what you have available.
After opening up to my husband, I made sure my coworkers also knew I had no problem talking about my mom and that they didn’t have to tiptoe around me. It felt like a relief putting that out there, and I’d like to believe they felt it too.
Death is a topic that everyone has some level of experience with. We just need a little nudge to open up sometimes. Sharing a meaningful conversation about an inevitable human experience can do so much for our human connection. I will walk the walk and organize my own “Death over Dinner” party soon. I’ll make sure to invite some particular coworkers.
There is no one right way to talk about death, but one thing is for sure: it needs to be done together.