Learning to deal with death

Neerja Singh

According to the dynamic Indian Population Clock on https://www.medindia.net/patients/calculators/pop_clock.asp, a leading online provider of health information, there are 9778073 deaths in India per year. This converts into about 19 deaths per minute in the country. Every death affects tens of family members and friends of the deceased. Someone somewhere is grieving every minute, many of them young school children. This loss, if left unacknowledged, can lead to complications of mental and emotional health.

Generations have dealt with this natural and inevitable phenomenon for years with gloom and fear of the painful finality. The young however are doing it differently. There is a new “death positivity movement” afoot and it is all about living one’s best life by embracing death.

All over the world, the cultural mindset has been that death is something horrific and to be avoided even though it happens to every one of us. The young however have begun to push back against this socio-cultural censorship with the death positive movement that advocates neutral acceptance of death and a mindful day-to-day living. In other words, the new generation would rather treat death with a positive mindset.

What all does this rebranding of death involve? Death cafes for one. A casual get-together where people can chat informally about dying. The WeCroak app which delivers five death related quotes to your phone daily. There is the end-of-life assistant, a doula of sorts who softens the blow by providing tangible and intangible help to negotiate the painful process of giving a loved one a meaningful goodbye.

This movement makes a lot of sense, given that medicine has brought longevity and along with it the notion that death is a form of failure, to be avoided at all cost. Early death was once quite commonplace! Futile and unaffordable medical interventions today prolong lives lived in hospitals and nursing homes even though a majority would prefer to take their last breath at home.

The truth is that we are all afraid to talk about death. It is considered inauspicious in many cultures to so much as name the word. The environment actively discourages such conversations. But what if learning about the concept of death were to encourage inter-personal communication and the resultant healing? Could we be doing this much better than the current hush hush, head in the sand approach?

This brings us to the subject of death education in schools. Does it need to be approached as a subject in this age and time? Would we gain as a society to stay a step ahead of this movement and not only share the tenets with our students and children but learn some ourselves? What would be the most appropriate manner to broach the nuances of end of life to young school students? And why do they need to know this?

What are the topics that would ideally make up death education? Language use, communication, context of death, cultural differences, the rituals and their meanings, the perceptions of time and how it influenced the sense of loss. There would be the biology of dead, ecological concerns and the changing attitudes towards death and dying. This beneficial, worthwhile and relevant education would aid the young and old in coping with their losses in wholesome ways.

It is time to reshape how we understand end-of-life questions. Can we prepare better for dying? Are there ways to make the experience less scary for us and our loved ones? How do we best engage with the dying and their families? Is there a possibility of consciousness continuing after death? How may we apply greater candidness to this most defining of human phenomenon? Is it helping our emotional and mental health to deny death’s existence?

In many cultures, death is a community builder. There are customs and rituals that connected family and friends participate in. These could be made more meaningful by permitting the affected persons to voice their concerns, advice, and stories with a greater openness. In some parts of the world, coffin clubs have emerged, their members build and decorate their own coffins. These are courageous people who have chosen to pull their heads out of the sand about death and dying. Children and young family members join their elders, normalizing the fact of dying in the process. The crying, laughing, loving and grieving proves therapeutic for all involved.

Dying is a journey through the unknown. Having the experience softened with foreknowledge can make us all feel safer and better prepared. The informal legacy that many cultures create of those departed can be better constructed with advance knowledge of the person’s deepest wishes. Perhaps a grandmother’s favourite recipes could be compiled for her unborn granddaughter. It could be entirely possible to clear the air with a loved one in time. Maybe we have wishes for the treatment of our bio-urn that stand a real chance of being fulfilled. Most poignant of all, we can answer the question, “What was our life like?”

Does death have to be so frightening and sobering? Can it not be as beautiful and orchestrated as birth? The new generations are embracing their own end in ways previous generations would shudder at. They plan their own cremations and funerals. They put down an advance directive that includes a living will with end-of-life medical instructions, power of attorney naming a person responsible for last affairs, or both. They speak about their wishes. Opening up these conversations around the family dinner table gives everyone a sense of peace in the present.

What’s more, the young increasingly want to express their unique selves in death as in life. It is popular for many of them to donate their bodies to science in advance. Once the research is complete, institutions pay to cremate the remains of its donors. There are occasions now when a person’s loved-ones may choose to hold a celebration of his/her life rather than a grieving vigil.

Perhaps death education in schools can teach our young to embrace mortality so that they may live more life with less fear.

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational diversity with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She is a TEDx speaker, a member of the Wisdom City Metaverse. She can be reached at neerja@neerjasingh.com and https://neerjasingh.com.

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