Fear of Death
Today’s guest post comes from the innovative Jeff Staab. Jeff was a funeral director for 20 years; and eventually translated that experience to his entrepreneurial enterprise “Cremation Solutions”. Jeff has produced the fringe Personal Urns and has recently introduced the beautiful and innovative “Your Touch Portraits.” Jeff brings a creative spark to the funeral industry. Check out his line and give him a “Like” on Facebook.
Sometimes during our lives, there are occasions when realizations hit us so suddenly and with such force that we’re left feeling dumbfounded. In one such instance, a funeral director friend was discussing a family’s loss with them when he came to the abrupt realization that he was terribly uncomfortable with the idea of his own mortality. He worried that as long as he held this discomfort, it would come across to the families he spoke with.
When he talks with the distraught families who have come to him for comfort and guidance, they will be able to sense, at least on some level, that he hasn’t even come to terms with his own mortality. How would he be able to help them? And what business does he have in providing them with advice in dealing with their loved one’s demise?
Turns out that many funeral directors have not made any of their own plans to die. I was at a recent presentation in a room of a hundred or so funeral directors and the presenter asked how many in the room had made their own pre-arrangements. Only a handful of hands went up! You would think that being reminded of death everyday would cause some insightful planning. Funeral directors deal with the subject of death for a living, but many of them are discomfited by talking about their own deaths.
Most often, people who are bothered by the thought of their mortality and haven’t considered what happens after death aren’t going to feel okay talking about it. Discuss it with your own loved ones, plan out your personal funeral or draw up a living will. When families come into your funeral home for guidance, ask them what they believe happens after death. Many will feel comfort and relief at discussing it with you. This can also help you be more compassionate and sensitive toward them while they’re planning their loved one’s funeral. In the end planning your own funeral can only help you relate to the families you serve every day.
Unfortunately, the topic of death is a taboo in modern society, particularly in the Western world. One may occasionally hear such things discussed briefly during religious services, but other than that, it’s something that we’re taught not to think or speak openly about. Regardless of this taboo, death is natural and it inevitably happens to everyone, so it’s good to consider the topic of your own death in order to help yourself, and therefore others, come to terms with it. Here are some of the things that you might want to consider.
Unease With Your Mortality
There are many reasons for being ill-at-ease with the idea of dying. Maybe you went through something traumatic and life-altering like an accident. Maybe death was never spoken of in your family. Perhaps, as is often the case, your particular faith paints death in a negative and fear-ridden light. Before you can accept the fact of your own mortality, it’s important to identify why you’re uncomfortable with it in the first place.
What Happens When You Die?
People fear what they don’t understand, and the topic of death is not immune from this fact. Most people fear dying because they feel uncertain about what happens afterward. Therefore, the most common reaction is to ignore the question entirely and resign yourself to crossing that bridge when you get to it. Although it may be uncomfortable or confusing, thinking about what happens after death can be excellent brain exercise. Ask your friends and loved ones what they think. This topic is also richly discussed both in books and online and can offer some helpful ideas and insights. Similarly, you can discuss it with a pastor or other religious advisor.
Are You Comfortable Speaking About Your Own Death?
When you have a set idea of what happens after your own death, you’ll be better equipped to handle losses in your own life as well as others. Individuals who have beliefs about what comes after are better able to cope with death than those who have no such beliefs. In many cases, the hardest part of dealing with the death of a friend or loved one is facing the unknown, so having some idea can make you feel less distraught.
Studies have shown that people who are unsure of how they view death may occasionally reject their current religious beliefs. In some cases, they’ll adopt an old set of beliefs or look for another form of spiritual guidance or teaching. Some of them may turn bitter and angry while others opt to live a life in service to others by volunteering and donating money, time, advice or assistance. The thing that all of these people have in common is that they’re seeking to make sense of death and find greater meaning in being alive.
After someone makes sense of a particular experience with death, either from a religious perspective or by assigning some other meaning to it, that person is usually able to move on. Many people who have personally dealt with such grief say that there are good things about it. They got through the experience, and after great contemplation on the frailty of life and what it means to them, they came out of it with a different way of looking at that life.
I’ve often heard it said that we fear dying more than we fear death. Death takes little time, but dying … it’s unpredictable and unfamiliar and can take months and years. I think we can quell our fear of dying, but not until we recognize why we fear dying.
Here are five reasons we fear dying:
One. We’re unfamiliar with dying.
Dying used to happen inside the home, with the family acting as caregiver, the home acting as the place of death. Now, it happens in a private room in a hospital or nursing home. With death removed from our common experience, it’s unfamiliar and unknown.
Two. We fear dying in an unfamiliar place.
Seven percent of American dying and death occurs outside of home and institution. And while most of this seven percent is produced by a tragic car accident, or random heart attack, the likelihood is that our “dying in an unfamiliar place” will not be of the tragic type.
The institutionalization of medicine means that you will probably die in an institutional setting. In fact, three out of four deaths in the United States occur in a hospital or nursing home, outside of our home surrounding and outside of the comfort of our family.
Three. We fear that our dying will be alone.
Often – due to the expertise of nursing staff – family can often arrive for our death, but they miss the dying. If you have a loved one in a nursing home, I respect your decision. Yet, to be honest, one of the hardest parts of my job is simply walking through nursing homes and seeing all the aging in crowded loneliness.
Four. We Don’t Know our Caregivers
With institutional dying, we have professional caregivers who do an outstanding job; but, these caregivers are not our loved ones, farther making our surroundings unfamiliar. I think we need to remember that the true professional caregivers are our loved ones and family members.
Five. We fear being a burden to our families
And this is perhaps the fundamental fear that lies at the heart of the problem. We think that by removing ourselves from our families (via entrance into a nursing home or retirement community), we relieve the burden; but YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. Your dying doesn’t burden family, it’s what creates family. It allows us to love, it allows us to be a caretaker, and it allows us to let the dying die in a familiar place.
The creators of the questionnaire (Conte, Weiner, and Plutchik) state that the average score is 8.5, which means that if you score higher than 8 or 9, you might be slightly anxious.
But, this isn’t the type of questionnaire that attempts to define you as not anxious, anxious or I-feel-like-I-am-gonna-die-right-this-very-second anxious.
Rather, this is the type of questionnaire that’s meant to cause reflection.
Answer each question with one of these numbers:
0 = not at all; 1 = somewhat; 2 = very much
Grab a pen and a piece of paper and jot down your scores:
|1. Do you worry about dying?|
|2. Does it bother you that you may die before you have done everything you wanted to do?|
|3. Do you worry that you may be very ill for a long time before you die?|
|4. Does it upset you to think others may see you suffering before you die?|
|5. Do you worry that dying may be very painful?|
|6. Do you worry that the persons closest to you won’t be with you when you are dying?|
|7. Do you worry that you may be alone when you are dying?|
|8. Does the thought bother you that you might lose control of your mind before death?|
|9. Do you worry that expenses connected with your death will be burden to other people?|
|10. Does it worry you that your instructions or will about your belongings may not be carried out after you die?|
|11. Are you afraid that you may be buried before you are really dead?|
|12. Does the thought of leaving loved ones behind when you die disturb you?|
|13. Do you worry that those you care about may not remember you after your death?|
|14. Does the thought worry you that with death you may be gone forever?|
|15. Are you worried about not knowing what to expect after death?|
Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.
2). We tend to dislike tradition.
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
The following are my thoughts in process, so bear with me:
In times less graced by natural science, the mysticism of death and the haunting of the disembodied soul kept death on the outside of community.
In fact, even those who handled the dead were the “other”. We were ostracized, considered unclean and sometimes we were considered untouchable.
In the Canary Islands from 900 BC, the “Guanche” embalmers were well paid for their practices, but were considered contaminated and lived in an ostracized community. In Judaism the Torah specifies that “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days” (Numbers 19:1).
In fact, as recent as 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Bull that prohibited the cutting of dead bodies for the purpose of burial under threat of excommunication.
The Dark Age gave way to progress, and natural science enabled us to touch death without fear of haunting. It demystified death to the point we could gather around and feel the life of death in community. It enabled embalming. It enabled extended viewings. It enabled us to understand causes, manners and the process of death and dying.
Yet, as science and technology advanced, the agrarian society began to diminish as the industrial age progressed. And as we’ve moved away from an agrarian society where death (of children, of animals) was a normal part of life, death has again become more of an outsider that has been institutionalized and handed over to the care of the medical professions.
Science demystified death and then mystified it again.
In an agrarian society, death occurs in the context of community. In an individualistic, industrial society, death becomes institutionalized, being pushed away – again – to the outside of our lives and the outside of community. And while the advancements of modern medicine are praiseworthy, they’ve placed the care and the end-stage of life in the hands of the experts instead of the hands of family and friends.
Nursing homes have become storage houses where the death professionals aid the transition from this world to the next world, and rob the rest of us of the community treasures produced by dying and death. At one time, death was mystical and placed on the fringe of community because of our lack of understanding of death and dying. Today, our understanding of death has again caused it to be mystical, as it’s found itself outside community and in hospitals and nursing homes.
Today, death is on the outside of life. And that’s why it’s so awkward for us. And that’s why we fear it. That’s why we shield our children from it and dread speaking about it.
And yet finding a way to invite death back into our lives is becoming possible with the advent of palliative care, home deaths and green burials.
In an industrial society, a person’s worth is often tied to what they can produce. As soon as we begin the end-stage of life, productivity stops and we too often view the dying as dead, at which point we ship our dying to a nursing home or hospital where they can completing the dying and death away from us.
But in dying, there is life, for both the sick and the caregivers. Hospice and palliative care allow us to get the most life out of death while still providing the advantages of medication; and for many who are dying, hospice care is given for free through Medicare.
We should find that when death is invited into our life, it will only strengthen us and our community. And it’s time we take advantage of the invitations hospice has given us. It’s time we find a way to include both dying and death instead of excluding it. It’s time we learn to live with death and grow out of this awkward phase.