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Monday, December 7, 2015

The Problem with Death Avoidance

by Amy Clarkson

We have a serious problem on our hands. It’s been around for decades, but it seems to be getting worse. Our problem? Death avoidance.

As a society, we keep getting farther away from the reality that death is inevitable. Death has gone from being something visible and an accepted part of life, to something invisible and far too easy to deny.

In the 1800s just as photography was coming into existence it was common to have a post mortem photograph taken just after someone died. These photographs were displayed in the home as a constant reminder of the loss. Death was something that happened in the home. Generations lived near each other, so it was common to have grandchildren present during the last days, as well as in the home around the deceased’s body during the day or two of the vigil and wake before burial.

Even the funeral processions were more visible. As loved ones walked behind a horse drawn carriage carrying the coffin in a slow mournful way, there was no escaping the knowledge of who had died, and all could see the family mourn openly.

Mourning in the 19th century also lent itself to something more visible. Loved ones dressed in black for a period of months to years. This custom allowed others to be reminded of death’s presence on a daily basis.

In our modern sophistication, we have drastically altered most of these past traditions. We don’t always live near family, and our elderly often are hidden away in nursing homes for their last months and years. Death occurs not in the home, but in hospitals and long term care facilities. Our distaste of death has seeped into funerals, which now are called a “celebration of life” with embalming practices to attempt to make the deceased look as alive as possible. We aren’t allowed to grieve for long, it’s too uncomfortable to face death. Mourners are subtly pushed to ‘get over’ their grief quickly and friends prefer not talking about it.

The word death itself is greeted as a morbid term. We use phrases such as “he passed away” or “he went to be with Jesus” to make it easier to say. I’ve seen it done in my own field. People don’t want to say ‘hospice’ because of its association with death, and prefer using the term ‘palliative care’ to push the reality of dying farther away. Another subtle trend is to use the phrase end of life, instead of saying someone is near death. The switch from life to death, diminishes our discomfort with death.

Recently I’ve had people say that even ‘end of life’ is too harsh. Should we come up with a new word for that period of life at the end? Perhaps we could call it the blue period. That way we cannot only avoid the word death but the word end as well.

What harm has our denial caused? Increased futile and sometimes painful treatments at the end, increased fear surrounding death and diminished meaning of life to name a few. We must remember that it is the realization of our mortality that gives us a reason to live.

Dr. Clarkson is a hospice physician for Southwind Hospice in Pratt, KS. This post was originally published in Dr. Clarkson's End Notes column for the Pratt Tribune. It is re-published here with the author's permission under a Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: "The Grim Reaper" by Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. 

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