The last taboo?

Death cafes, getting on with it and unresolved grief  – Nina Vaswani takes a brave look at the subject that affects us all but which we struggle to talk about…

So I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently – morbid huh?  But whether we like to think about it or not, death is an inevitable part of life.  And with every life that comes to an end, left behind are the family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who have to deal with this loss in the best way that they can.  But how do we as a society deal with death and dying?

My recent research about the bereavement experiences of young men in Polmont was a humbling experience, and I cannot thank the young men enough for sharing their experiences with me. But to be honest, the research almost didn’t happen because I was worried about how the young people might react to discussing such a sensitive, personal or emotional issue, or how the prison might feel about me potentially causing upset among their young people.  I also wondered about how I would handle hearing their stories. As a researcher I am meant to be objective but I also bring my own experiences of loss and bereavement.  I wasn’t even sure at first whether to write this blog – death really is the last taboo.

This was evident in the findings from my research.  The young men who participated displayed a huge amount of stoicism, and talked about ‘just getting on with it’ after someone they loved had died.  They painted pictures of growing up in families devastated by multiple and traumatic losses, but with adult caregivers and role models who were often unable or unwilling (mostly with the undoubtedly benign intention of protecting their children from worry and pain) to talk about or openly express grief.

I understand this, I really do.  It’s hard to talk about this sort of thing.  Take me for example: I am hugely interested in bereavement research and so (possibly) think, read and talk about death and dying more than most.  But even I did a double-take when I recently read about ‘death cafes’ in the paper..  These are events held, all over the world, where “…people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death”.   Who on earth would want to do that – even if there IS cake involved?! But after my initial reaction I began to think that it might make sense; as Jon Underwood, founder of Death Café says: “It is one of the most significant events we ever have to face”.

Death Café is not meant to be a bereavement support or counselling session, but maybe there is something inspiring in its frankness that might help us as a society learn how to deal with death.  Bereavement will never be an easy thing to face, and if our losses didn’t result in immense sadness we would question the very nature of the human condition, but maybe it is possible to be better equipped to deal with our bereavements by at least a certain level of preparation?   Maybe if we adults were more comfortable at talking about death, we might become better at finding acceptable and meaningful ways to talk about bereavement and loss with children and young people too?

Certainly not talking about it doesn’t do children and young people any favours, and can even cause harm by preventing the assimilation of positive memories which in turn prevents adjustment and may result in unresolved grief.  Unresolved grief has been linked to many negative outcomes and the young people I spoke to were clear about the devastating impact that bereavement, and the wider ‘ripples of death’ had on their lives – often culminating in substance misuse, offending behaviour and prison.  We need to find ways to support our young people through their bereavements, either as practitioners working with young people, as educators in schools and most importantly, as a society.

While dealing with grief is an intensely personal experience, and there isn’t one best way that will work for everyone, adults need to be positive role models for young people.  And it can’t do us any harm as a society to acknowledge that death is inevitable and to be more open about bereavement and loss.  The work of organisations such as Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief (an organisation that should, in my humble opinion, win an award for the most brilliant name!) and the existence of the Death Café suggests that maybe society is beginning to change after all.

On reflection, there has been a lot of learning for me in doing this research.  The first, and crucial, learning point for me was that people, even those who are vulnerable or disenfranchised, are willing to talk about death if they are given the opportunity and we make that experience safe and meaningful for them.  The young men were clear that talking ‘was not for them’ but despite this they clearly took some comfort in telling me the stories of their loved ones: the happy, sad and mundane memories, simply the types of stories that help us create our identity and to share a rich connection with our friends, family and loved ones.  These biographical histories and narratives might offer a clue about how we can help young people, and others, work through the pain of grief.  As one young man said: “It’s nice to talk about things know what I mean? Even this, to be able to talk about stuff, it’s quite good for me know what I mean, cos it’s no something I’ve ever really done”.

This also highlights to me the importance of researching taboo and sensitive subjects, not just for developing our understanding about these issues, but also because of the potential ‘therapeutic’ benefits for participants too. We must not shy away from them for fear about how difficult it might be. In this respect I would like to extend a huge thanks to Polmont for supporting me, and the young men, through this challenging, but ultimately rewarding, research.

P.S. I feel that I should lighten the mood now and end on a more light-hearted note, maybe with some funny internet meme or anecdote to offset all this doom and gloom.  But there we go again, with that instinctive human response to deflect the awkward topics or to dismiss difficult thoughts – maybe just for once I won’t do it (the picture of the cat in a shark suit can wait till next time…!).

About our blogger

In addition to youth justice, Nina’s many research interests include bereavement, loss and trauma, the vulnerability of young males and violence. Read more. 

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