Sing it like Salt-n-Pepa "Let's talk about death, baby." How death anxiety lurks within us all.
By Nicky Stewart, Oct 12 2019 11:55AM
Ah, the 1990's a great decade for music! If like me you are in your late forties, you may have been a 90s clubber, out singing and dancing to the (at the time) controversial lyrics from the American hiphop girl group 'Salt-N-Pepper' classic, inviting us all to "Talk about sex". 'Salt' (Cheryl James) was interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine in 1991, "The song was about communication and talking about a subject that nobody wants to talk about.". Fast forward nearly 30 years and I think Salt-N-Pepper may be pleased their mantra did get us all talking about and normalising a conversation about sex. As as society we can now openly discuss safe sex as well as have RSE included on the school curriculum. Now how about we change that lyric to "Let's talk about death, baby"? Doesn't quite have the same ring eh? But it is a needed conversation...
I have noticed over the last 10 years, as a society, we have become obssessed with the pursuit to look, feel and act younger. Some people feel the need to go under the surgeon's knife in an attempt to ward off the natural signs of aging. When I was a child I remember how seeing aging was acceptable in our communities. Both my Nans' had a full head of grey hair in their 50s and wore it well, always looking elegant and smart. In today's society it may be that aging has become something to avoid in the unconscious pursuit for immortality. I see death anxiety lurking in every part of life, so maybe it is time we all start a conversation about something we all face..our own death and the death of our loved ones. Don't get me wrong I am not a morbid, pessimistic person who is obssessed with death, but I see we are all on this journey of life. In avoiding talking about the ultimate destination we are creating a fear that permeates every part of our society.
Irvin D. Yalom, an American existential psychiatrist, talks openly about his own death anxiety. Over his career he would always ask his clients, "What is it that frightens you most about death?". In his 2008 article for BACP he talks about his journey to acceptance of his own mortality. He discusses how Epicurus (341–270 BC) an ancient Greek philosopher, believed the mission of philosophy was to relieve human misery. He believed the root cause of human misery is our omnipresent fear of death.
During his life Yalom found that, "Of all the ideas that have emerged from my years of practice to counter a person’s death anxiety and distress at the transience of life, I have found the idea of ‘rippling’ singularly powerful. Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates – often without our conscious intent or knowledge – concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations." He likens the effect we may have on others during our lives to the ripples of a pond, which go on and on reaching outwards until you cannot see what they touch. When I am supporting clients in the therapy room that have had a bereavement we always talk about how their lost loved one will be remembered. What parts of that person they have internalised, how that person has shaped them, all this discussion validates Yalom's 'ripple effect'.
Do you ever take time to consider your own mortality? Have you put in place plans for your own death, a will, funeral etc? Have you talked about this with your families? These are all questions that Dying Matters can help with. Dying Matters is a coalition of individual and organisational members across England and Wales, which aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life. They even offer lesson plans to assist teachers in bringing this into the curriclum. They are calling for dying, death and bereavement to be added to the national curriculum for secondary schools.
I really champion change in our society in which dying, death and bereavement will be seen and accepted as the natural part of everybody’s life cycle. This acceptance starts with open communication. Talking about loss, enabling grief to be part of our society once again. If we look back in history and examine how death was marked in the past we see that right up until Victorian times we were able to see death and grief openly in our communities. During the Victorian era periods of mourning were expected and the length of mourning was dependant on your relationship with the deceased. Whilst I am not advocating a return to Victorian practices I do feel a more open discussion around loss and grief will enable us all to prepare for the ultimate ending whilst reducing presenting anxieties.
When death anxiety is addressed we can then understand the impact of this on our own reaction to loss i.e. grief. Dr Lois Tonkin, a researcher, counsellor, and writer about loss and grief talks about her work with grieving people. She sees that we as human beings have a grief response not only when someone dies, but about losing anything that is important to us. She believes that living with the losses of life is not so much about getting ‘over’ them, as finding ways to live with them, and live a happy and full life that includes them. Grieving is an experience of making sense of our losses, of getting adjusted to a different life and different expectations; of growing around them.
Every year in May, Dying Matters and the coalition members host an Awareness Week, which gives us all an unparalleled opportunity to place the importance of talking about dying, death and bereavement firmly on the national agenda. In 2020, the week will run from 11th to the 17th of May and the theme will be "Dying to be Heard". Join in with the conversation!
Finally, sing along with me to the tune of Salt-N-Pepper... "Let's talk about death, baby (sing it). Let's talk about you and me (sing it, sing it). Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be"