I’m studying to be a doctor of death. As creepy as that sounds, it’s entirely true. This year I have started my PhD in the communication of death and illness. For a twenty three year old, this is strange for two main reasons (although I’m sure there are more): Why would a young woman want to spend the best years of their life writing about such a morbid subject? And why in hell would you want to become a doctor of it?
When I was nineteen I was like every other young adult– enjoying the company of the opposite sex and finding as many hours as I could in the day to drink cheap wine. It seemed there was nothing off topic– I could chat into the wee hours with friends and enemies alike about the three broken taboos– sex, religion, and politics. And hey, it felt good to be young, university educated, and encouraged to talk and to question.
Then my mother died. Yes it was sad, and still is. But the biggest shock, and perhaps the greatest sadness, came in the aftermath of her death. I learnt very quickly that death and our experiences of it, our grief, was a topic off the table of conversation in almost every situation. I felt pressured to straighten up, pull myself together, and put her death behind me. And I did just that.
However as I have grown up a little, I have realised how destructive this taboo really is. Any trained psychologist could tell us why, but in a nutshell, burying our emotions and trauma does not get rid of our problems– the evidence suggests it escalates them. I am not proposing we spend our lives philosophising death spiritually and theoretically, but perhaps that we spend a little of our time asking each other and ourselves, particularly in times when we have experienced the death of a loved one, ‘Are you okay?’
Even small things can make the world of difference. Having a chat with somebody else who is grieving, getting a bunch of flowers on the anniversary of our loved one’s death, or having an open conversation with a fellow human being about our story where they don’t flinch and change the subject. Acknowledging the truth of life– that it involves death– will be the key to breaking one of the last existing taboos in our culture. There is no individual to point the finger at to blame for this continuing silence. There are many reasons why we keep our traps shut about issues around death and grief– our elderly parents and grandparents no longer live and die in our homes, but often die alone in nursing homes, unseen by the living; medical discovery means that we live longer and stronger than ever, and can put thinking about our mortality off that little bit longer, and TV and film often depicts death in the conventions of the crime genre, lingering on everything but the dead person and their families. But despite this, there is at this stage in our evolutionary history, no magic pill to take that will make us live forever. We will all pass over, to wherever we are going. So let’s break the taboo and start a dialogue, if for nothing but our mental health, and to keep alive the memories of those we love who are no longer here.
By Freya Latona