We Really Need to Talk About Grief

Wouldn't it be useful to have a manual on how to deal with those in mourning? After her mother died, Annie Broadbent went and wrote one.

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Nov 18 2014, 12:40pm

Pia Interlandi is a a fashion designer who creates decomposing burial shrouds and uses them to promote interaction with dead bodies. Photo by Devika Bilimoria

You'd think losing your mother would be the worst part of losing your mother. But for Annie Broadbent, whose mother succumbed to cancer in 2011, one of the hardest parts of the loss was watching her friends and family become paralyzed by the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, leaving them unable to support her during the most difficult time of her life.

Because we don't talk about the frightening but ubiquitous experiences of grief and death, we often confront death for the first time only when it finally, inevitably hunts us down. For Broadbent and her support network, her mother's death hit hard. She had been working part time for a music festival and setting up a charity to help new graduates fund creative start-ups, but closed the business following her loss. "I knew there was no way I would be able to go back to it afterwards," she said over email. "In fact, when Mum died, I knew there was no way I could go back to anywhere or anything – everything from that point on had to be new."

"New" for Broadbent meant throwing herself headlong into the UK's burgeoning death acceptance culture, working as a volunteer at a hospice and visiting terminal patients at home in their final months. She is also involved with a child bereavement group and speaks and writes regularly about death at events like the Death Cafe, a growing speaking series aimed at destigmatizing death by talking about it. "At Death Cafes people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death," the organizers' slogan goes. "Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives."

For a while, death and the grieving process took over Broadbent's life: "I became entirely identified by my grief and all things death and dying. It was the only way I knew how to make sense of my world," she said. She's training to be a psychotherapist, and has written a book, We Need to Talk About Grief. It's essentially a manual for how to deal with people close to you when death strikes you or them. The writing is unpretentious, the premise simple: "The more we talk about death and grief, and the more people share their experiences of what does and doesn't work for them, the less awkward we will all feel about the whole death thing."

Annie Broadbent. Image courtesy of the author

Widespread cultural death denial means not only do we talk about "the whole death thing," but that we don't want to deal with the grief that death can cause either. Our fear of death, Broadbent argues in her book, extends to a fear of those dealing with death, resulting in an inability to talk to the bereaved. They are too close to mortality, and it scares us. But if we don't confront loss in the first place, we can't help others confront it, so we all stay silent, feeling terrible. The book is a guide, then, not only for those dealing with a loss, but for those around them.

The book's epigraph quotes Geoffrey Gorer's Death, Grief and Mourning: "At present, death and mourning are treated with much the same prudery as sexual impulses were a century ago." This statement is accurate for now, but things are changing.

There's a rising tide in popular culture of death acceptance and awareness. Caitlin Doughty is the proprietor of death acceptance collective Order of the Good Death and something of a celebrity mortician. She recently released Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, a memoir about her work and musings about a life led with an awareness of death.

The Death Cafe movement of which Broadbent has been a part is growing, putting has around 1,300 events across Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia since it began in 2011. Death Salon is another growing series with a similar mandate and emphasis on academic and artist speakers presenting about death.

"At present, death and mourning are treated with much the same prudery as sexual impulses were a century ago."

Just as the internet has united sufferers of mental illness and victims of sexual assault across the globe through hashtags, personal essays and niche research, the bereaved have increasingly found support online. Message boards and support groups allow the grief-stricken to connect with others in mourning, those seeking more specific comforts can visit sites like YoungWidow.org or smaller Facebook communities like Daughters Grieving Loss of Mother.

Opening a space for grief dialogue online makes the internet a wonderful place to explore how grief and death acceptance interact, too. English doctor Kate Granger runs a popular blog about her experience with an aggressive terminal cancer, writing with humor and humility about the process of dying. She also encouraged her almost 30,000 Twitter followers to pick a hashtag with which to live-tweet her last moments. Suggestions included #deathbedlive, #onedieseveryminute, and #finalcountdown. She went with the first.

Morbidity is having a moment. And why shouldn't it? "I just couldn't get my head round the fact that the only certainty we have in life was something that almost everyone avoids," says Broadbent, who added she was as death-averse as anyone else before her mother died. "I was terrified of death and the dying. When I became bereaved I instantly found myself somewhat alienated. I was suddenly someone people couldn't relate to. And I don't believe this is because people hadn't experienced it—I don't think that's necessary to be able to support someone. It's because there hadn't been any space for death and grief in our lives before then—it was still the 'let's not go there' topic of conversation. And suddenly it couldn't be the 'let's not go there' because it was everywhere, for me." Thus, the book.

We Need to Talk About Grief is honest and earnest, a combination that can be jarring about a topic rarely discussed in public, let alone in print. It's a guide to grief for those on the outside looking in, each chapter featuring a different person's story of loss ("John's partner," "Anna's son," "Adam's best friends"), starting with her own. All of the bereaved share their stories and answer the same questions—what can you say and avoid saying? What helped and what didn't?—providing a moving picture of the ways that grief is universal yet deeply personal, something we all experience differently. Reading the blunders of the non-bereaved, I felt a pang of recognition: the time I said "that sucks" in response to someone's grandmother dying. Not calling a friend I knew was having a hard time processing her friend's death, because it "didn't feel like my place."

The book draws the non-bereaved into the death acceptance movement in a gentle, encouraging way. This idea is exciting to Broadbent, who hopes more people will see themselves as part of a death-aware society. "It's amazing. Death acceptance is like the new zeitgeist of people talking about happiness and potential, the [modern version of] corporates sending their employees off to do mindfulness courses. Who'd have thought? I know there is an enormous amount of work to do, but I'm so excited about the way humanity is evolving."

Follow Monica Heisey on Twitter.

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