Death matters – so why don’t we talk about it?

Nothing can quite prepare you for the death of a loved one.  It’s coming up to a year since Mum died, although when I look back, it feels like it was yesterday.  Being alongside her and with her as she died was a privilege, and the care and support she received was incredible.

Mum was ever the optimist, determined and quietly competitive, especially when it came to a game of cards!  There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about her and wonder what she would say or do.  Or wish she was by my side during those moments of shared celebrations, birthdays, sporting achievements or just to say, “what do you think about this?”

In the months leading up to Mum’s death, and as each month has passed since last October, so too has my own journey into understanding grief.  Not just my own grief but how we humans’ approach and talk about death and grief, especially at work.  It is perhaps one of the most universal human experiences each one of us will face and yet the one that’s often the least openly spoken about.

“Grief is not something to be overcome.  It is an emotional response to a loss, and every loss is unique.”

Grief is not something to be overcome.  It is an emotional response to a loss, and every loss is unique.   We cannot predict how we will react when someone close to us dies.  We don’t follow a linear process through change, we become changed by the experience.

Talking about death may feel uncomfortable.  Often, we put on a fake smile and try to ‘grin and bear it’.  We come up with other words and language to avoid saying ‘died’.  We become anxious about saying the wrong thing and instead avoid it and say nothing at all.  Culturally we are not prepared to talk about loss. But what I have valued most during this past year has been the support of those who have dared to talk to me about the hard stuff.  Those who have listened whilst I’ve cried.  Those who have not tried to fix and tell me what I ‘should’ feel or do.  And those who have acknowledged the waves of deep sadness that sometimes creep in when I least expect them.

The impact of this?  I have been able to turn up at work as me, Sara.  I have not had to put on a show or pretend that everything’s ok when deep down I’m hurting.  I have learnt about myself, about my response to loss and my capacity to respond when it feels like my world has been rocked.  And I am not afraid to talk about death.

Our purpose at The Conversation Space is to ‘strengthen human connection through the power of conversation.’  I don’t think I would be in the place I’m in now, emotionally or physically, since Mum died if I hadn’t had some incredible conversations.  Thankfully, some of those have been face to face with family and friends I run with, and one friend in particular who works with Cruse Bereavement Care.  And the virtual conversations have been with people I have had incredibly strong relationships with over a number of years.

“Most employers and organisations provide support through maternity and birth.  Let’s start changing the conversation and start providing more support to talk about death.”

What concerns me is how equipped our society is to provide conversational support to those who are grieving when we cannot be face to face.  When managers may just have weekly zoom catch ups that don’t leave sufficient time or space to explore how someone is really feeling.  When we may be anxious or stressed ourselves and not have the emotional capacity to be supporting others.  Or when we are so used to knowing the answer and fixing problems, that stepping into what could be a deeply emotional conversation leaves us feeling incredibly vulnerable.

It is through our conversations that we can bring comfort, provide a space to reflect, and the potential to heal, especially with those who are grieving or experiencing loss.  Most employers and organisations provide support through maternity and birth.

Let’s start changing the conversation and provide more support to talk about death.

By Sara Hope

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