The elephant in everyone’s room

Nobody talks about death. Not really. 

They talk about how to avoid it: don’t smoke, eat less, exercise more, give money to medical research – as if immortality were not only the Holy Grail, but almost within our reach. They talk about it in relation to violence: the casualties of war, the victims of natural disasters, the results of crime. Religions talk about it as the passage to a higher place and the mercy of God.  

But no one talks about the pervading reality that most of us will face sooner or later: the fact that someone we love has come to the end of their allotted span not by chance, bad judgement or bad management, but because that’s the way it is. The Number One killer is not heart disease: it’s being born that ensures our ultimate demise, and while society has progressed in many admirable ways, we have become wantonly blind in the matter of dealing with death. 

For close friends and relatives, the period immediately following a death is limbo. Whether they have been stoic or emotional, the defining moment is over, and in that moment, the world as they knew it has been wiped out. They move through the following days in a bubble of unreality. They deal with the business of death: the arrangements, the legalities, the condolences. But once the funeral is over, the reality of bereavement sets in in earnest. And that’s when society turns its back and walks away. 

Different cultures have different rituals and traditions surrounding death, but in most of the western world, it has become almost an embarrassment, to be whisked under the rug as quickly as possible. Perhaps it’s superstition: don’t look too closely in case we catch its eye and it turns its attention to us. Or perhaps it’s a sense of failure: for all our apparent brilliance, we haven’t managed to conquer it. Or is it simply that in the fast-paced world we inhabit, we don’t make time to care. Life moves on, we mumble, and go about our business as before, too uncomfortable in the face of grief to make allowances. 

But for those who grieve, moving on is slow and painful. Every day must be reconstructed around the hollow place once occupied by someone integral to our lives. There are all the ‘firsts’ to contend with: birthdays, Christmas, significant anniversaries that were previously shared occasions. And there are reminders everywhere: images, phrases, pieces of music, likenesses. You don’t want to forget, but remembering jabs at the all-encompassing bruise that is mourning, while people around you look sideways and wish you’d get over it.  

But you don’t get over the loss of someone close. You get through it, and that takes time. But the time to mourn is these days considered a luxury, or even a self-indulgence. 

Nobody talks about death, not really. Once the wake is over, they prefer to pretend it hasn’t happened. And that makes grief a long and lonely road.


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9 Responses to The elephant in everyone’s room

  1. I wish I could put it into words like you, Helen. I dealt with the deaths of mother, father, in-laws, but when my brother died (he was 2 years younger than me) I had the most appalling time handling it.

    Hie death brought home the reality, and as I get older, it’s something I contemplate now and then, and that contemplation, reinforcing the inevitability, has taken away any fear. I’m in no hurry to shuffle off the mortal coil, but I don’t fear it, and as a consequence, I find I’m getting just that little bit more out of life.

    You’re right. We in the Western world need to open up on this a little more.

    • Thanks, David. I don’t fear death either, it’s mourning that’s so hard. (Not something I’m currently doing, thank goodness – just seeing someone else pretending he isn’t.) I think the idea of mourning clothes had a lot going for it. They made grief respectable, as well as saying ‘Not normal at the moment.’ Although in Queen Victoria’s case, they probably just hid a multitude of sins.

  2. I wanted to have a ‘hell yes’ button rather than just a like! A lot of what you said resonated with my own experiences after the death of my dad and very much with the way friends avoided me like a contagion… I think we have a lot of learning about death to do.

  3. Tammy says:

    This is so true. When my grandmother died a couple of years ago and then my grandfather not long after I was absoutely devastated. The law gives us three days bereavement leave and then you’re just supposed to be able to snap back into work as if nothing happened. My co-worker broker her foot at the same time and I was astounded that everyday people would ask her how she was, but even though I was in middle of grieving a huge loss, they were almost too afraid to ask me how I was doing in case I broke down, or they got an answer they couldn’t respond too. Because my ‘injury’ wasn’t physical as was hers it wasn’t acknowledged. I find the same thing true with miscarriages. My husband and I have had a few in the last year but nobody likes to ask you how you’re doing. I guess sometimes they think you don’t want to talk about it and that they’re doing you a favour but for me they were my babies that I lost and I wanted that acknowledged as well.
    Anyway, I’m ok now 🙂 We are looking forward to the future, hopefully we are able to have children. Just wanted to say how true this was!

  4. Die Trying says:

    As always, a pleasure to read your scribblefest Helen:)! The No. 1 subject to be taught in schools should be Emotions, discussion panels on the topic,how to deal with them, because people never know what to say or how to approach an emotional topic, fear is something else, this leads to so many emotional disorders, Just my view. xx

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