It is sad but inevitable; but does our aversion of the subject of dying lead to greater problems?
“Seen any good funerals lately?”
If someone said that to you, you might think them a little odd, but why? What is it that stops you talking about death, is it the fear of tempting fate to come knocking on your door or perhaps news of care homes has created a picture of an undignified medically tranquilised end as you shuffle off your mortal coil?
Just what has turned an inevitable part of life and living into such a taboo subject from which children are protected and that is suppressed by polite conversation?
A report by Stella Mary O’Gorman published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing looked at why the attitude of the Western World differs from many other societies that have retained their cultural heritage and cope with death in a more positive way.
Perhaps our current perception of what lies ahead has its roots in the mediaeval era when artwork started to personify death as a frightening and unpleasant spectre. Is it only now that we are starting to revert to a more holistic approach and, given the chaos of religious beliefs; returning to more pagan values?
TRADITIONAL CULTURES V. MEDICAL INTERVENTION
For some non-Western civilisations death is not seen as an isolated event but more of a process as an individual passes from one stage to the next.
The Orthodox Jewish custom includes a 7 day ‘shiva’ when the bereaved members remain at home to grieve and are visited and supported by friends and family; everyone recognising that their lives will be affected by the death.
During an Irish Wake the body of the deceased along with his/her family are cared for by the community and children are encouraged to ‘view’ the corpse.
But is part of our inability to prepare for the inevitable down to our raised expectations? With the emergence and rapid progress of medical knowledge, do we now see a long life as our ‘right’?
Have we moved away from the ‘naturalness’ of dying?
Before the advances of medical treatment we were more aware of our physical limitations; by allowing Social Services and Health Workers to interfere with our biological time-slot, have we subscribed to a system that removes the disciplines of mortality and along with that, given away many of the rituals and customs that gave it meaning and therefore some level of comfort?
Could it be that from the point we are admitted into palliative care, ‘… we are dispossessed of our role in the outside world …’ and the ‘upkeep’ of our body is taken over by the medical world, ‘… making friends and relatives feel unwelcome and uncomfortable …’? So the period of time when a person would naturally die and the family would feel more in control of their loved one’s destiny as well as their own grief, now becomes a time of ‘limbo’ when people are unsure and feelings of bereavement are extended artificially, giving false hope that make the grieving process all the more difficult to cope with.
63% of us would prefer to die at home yet 53% of those that die each year, die in hospital
And when death eventually occurs, is grief seen as a weakness; how often have mourners tried hard to retain their dignity, swallow back the tears and ‘be strong’ in the face of so much sadness?
By disassociating ourselves from death and dying and thus closing our eyes to the inevitable, have we endangered ‘life’ by exposing ourselves to the consequences of not satisfying our grief? It has been medically proven that unresolved grief can cause anxiety, depression and physical disease.
There is ultimately no cure for mortality – it will happen and those cultures that recognise death as being part of life seem to demonstrate a greater appreciation of the value of ‘life’.
In a world where life moves ever faster and when everyone is being told you can have what you want when you want it, maybe it’s time to slow down and appreciate just what life is about so we understand our mortal limitations and thus gain greater benefit from the time we have amongst the living and face our inescapable fate with less terror.
In 2009 the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) set up the Dying Matters coalition to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement.