Seeing the life in death

A participant at the 2023 Worldwide Candle Lighting event blows out her candle during the candle lighting ceremony. Worldwide Candle Lighting Day occurs every second Sunday in December, and friends and family gather on this day to commemorate those they have lost. The event was hosted by The Compassionate Friends, Brisbane Lions Club, and Mission Hospice and Home Care.
A participant at the 2023 Worldwide Candle Lighting event blows out her candle during the candle lighting ceremony. Worldwide Candle Lighting Day occurs every second Sunday in December, and friends and family gather on this day to commemorate those they have lost. The event was hosted by The Compassionate Friends, Brisbane Lions Club, and Mission Hospice and Home Care.
Arianna Zhu

From fictional objects like the Fountain of Youth to technologies like cryogenic freezing, humanity’s determination to find the cure to death has been unwavering. 

Yet, death is something that almost all living organisms must experience; it is the one guarantee in life, but many people see it as taboo. The avoidance of talking about and acknowledging death creates a stigma around the dying, the elderly, and people who are grieving those they have lost.

“My best friend of 55 years, whom I’ve known since high school, is terrified of death. He’s terrified of dying and is often overcome by the existential dread of non-existence. And that’s never been true for me. I’m not looking forward to dying, but life is going to end sometime, and I’m curious to see what comes next,” said Erik Migdail, an English teacher at Carlmont High School.

Research has shown that those who have never directly encountered death tend to possess a negative perception of the dying. However, those who have encountered death often undergo a transformation in their perceptions of living and dying.

Read in the following section accounts of the grief journeys of individuals in various stages of life and how their perspectives on life and death shifted as a result of their losses.

Stories of life, love, and loss
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Grief as a form of love

The discomfort around talking about death directly affects those who are grieving as well. According to data from the Marie Curie charity, 33% of people frequently avoid talking about their loss because they know it would make others uncomfortable. However, 46%, or nearly half, of people, see talking about their loved ones as the most preferred way to celebrate their lives.

“One thing that I really wanted after losing my dad was to talk about it; I just wanted people to know what had just happened and what I had experienced — I wanted to share what it was like for me,” Garey said.

Everyone has a unique grief process. Some, like Garey, might find talking about the ones they’ve lost as the best way to cope with the grief, some might prefer to journal, some may want to keep themselves busy, or maybe a combination of all three. 

“Being able to listen without judging is so critical when you’re encountering someone who is experiencing the realities of death. You have to be able to open yourself up to so many different reactions that they could have,” Volk said.

Recently, grief counseling groups have become more accepted and popular as they provide a safe space for the bereaved to share their feelings. Grief support groups help members find emotional support and validation as they navigate their grief process together.

“Initially, I felt numb from the shock and pain I was experiencing. I had this strong urge to seek out other people who went through this, so I think I reached out on Reddit. We found a bunch of other young people who went through this experience and we would go on hikes together and talk about our experiences. Just sharing our stories really helped,” Roy said.

Whether you choose to form a grief group or find one through an organization, group grief counseling is one of the best options for someone looking to share their loss experiences but is afraid of creating an uncomfortable situation.

“In my experience, grief groups or therapy are pretty much the only place where people are willing to talk about death. It’s not something openly talked about that much, especially in America, but the exceptions are people who have undergone loss. They understand that they’re in the same boat,” Roy said.

However, in an ideal world, those who are coping with grief should be able to find solace in people who have not lost close ones — they should not be afraid to talk about their grief with those around them. One method to combat the stigma that the bereaved face is to talk about death with children.

Ford, who experienced the death of her father when she was 11, said her family tried to protect her by not talking about it, which was difficult for her.

“I have this one memory from that time: I was at my home and my father had a sort of jewelry box with a lot of mementos in it. I remember sitting down and going through this box, looking at all his things, but then I had an uncle who came and took it away from me. I felt so sad after, it was awful. Children also need a way to express their sorrow, to see that death is a part of life,” Ford said.

Although approaching the subject of death with children should be different than with adults, it is still necessary. According to research by the Children Bereavement Estimation Model, one in 12 children in the U.S. will go through the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 18.

“Death is part of life. Shielding children from it doesn’t help, but, as with any other good parenting, you need to think meaningfully about how to introduce the topic. I think it’s important for kids to be aware because having a crippling fear of death is just not healthy,” Migdail said.

By introducing the concept of death and grief to children, they can grow up with a healthy understanding of dying. Rather than avoiding the topic, they will be able to talk about it openly, and the stigmatization of death will lessen. 

Embracing the humanity in death

“Death is scary. A lot of the stigma around it is because everyone is afraid of dying. For some people more than for other people,” Fan said.

Patients nearing the end of life because of disease find their emotional and physical well-being neglected at times because of society’s discomfort around the dying. 

“A lot of people think death is morbid, but I really don’t see it that way. Death teaches you to embrace your life, to make good choices and to remember to take care of yourself in relationships. Being more aware of death and being okay with talking about it helps you to live,” Dawson said.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Independent Age, almost 50% of respondents aged 40 to 64 didn’t feel comfortable at the prospect of talking to their parents about death. These negative sentiments make it difficult for end-of-life patients to receive quality care and high financial expenses for their caregivers as they seek psychological help. 

“People are hesitant to talk about death. In America, we want everyone to be cheerful and happy, and death isn’t any of those things. It’s this facade of happiness we put on. But America is only 200 years old, whereas death has been with us since the birth of life,” Roy said.

The stigma is not unique to the U.S. either. Western culture tends to view death as taboo, as well as many cultures in Asia. Fan, who comes from a Chinese immigrant family, has experienced this stigma.

“My parents knew about my friend and they also knew how close we were, but soon after she died, my mom asked me to delete her photos from my phone. She thought it was bad luck,” Fan said.

However, some cultures have found ways to perceive death in healthy and practical ways. For instance, Swedish death cleaning, the practice where elderly people approaching end-of-life clean out their possessions to the bare necessities, helps lessen the burden their loved ones face when going through their things after they pass.

If Western culture can begin to adopt practices that normalize death, what time the dying have remaining will be significantly improved, as well as the lives of those left behind. Death is scary, but it does not have to be a subject people tiptoe around.

Death is natural. Death is inevitable. Death is human.

About the Contributor
Arianna Zhu
Arianna Zhu, Scot Scoop Editor
Arianna Zhu, class of '25, is a junior at Carlmont High School and an editor for Scot Scoop. She is on the girls varsity tennis team and swim team at Carlmont. Outside of school, Arianna enjoys spending time with her friends and loves to read. Twitter: arianna_z_news

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