Let’s open up the conversation about death

By: Christopher Creene

I’ve been thinking about my Dad a lot recently. Another February 4th has come and gone, and this year it marked 8 years without my Dad. When asked about my parents, I find myself speaking about my Dad in present tense as if he is still with us, failing to mention that he passed away from a heart attack soon after we moved to Canada.

Why?

Don’t get me wrong – I want to talk about him. I want to share fond memories of him, and laugh about the antics he used to get up to. But over the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the ‘social taboo’ that exists around death. People get awkward and don’t know where to look when you talk about someone close to you dying. It makes people feel uncomfortable. So I’ve learned not to bring it up, to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve met all kinds of wonderful people since moving to Ontario last year, but in that time I have only told one person about the death of my father. It’s with such regret that I feel I need to hold back on talking about the man who made me who I am today. He was a wonderful role model to my siblings and I, and a dearly loving husband to my mother. I have such pride in saying that he is my father.

Whilst writing this blog entry, I started to wonder how other people felt about this topic after losing someone they love. I reached out to one of my best friends, an incredible guy who I’ve known for many years now. His younger brother was tragically killed by a drunk driver 3 years ago. This is what he had to say:

“In my experience, I feel that those who aren’t your family don’t want to hear about your hardships. I think that’s mainly because it makes them feel sad, and it makes them worry that YOU could become upset, at which point they’d have to console you. Also, in general I don’t want people to pity me. I want people to do/say nice things for/about me not because they pity me, but because they respect me.”

His words perfectly describe what I’m trying to get across, and it was interesting to hear that I am not the only person who feels this way.

I’ll admit that prior to experiencing loss myself, I responded to death in a similar way. It made me uncomfortable, and I would avoid talking about it to prevent others from becoming upset. I felt that because I couldn’t relate, any words of comfort that I provided would lack authenticity. This is one of the main reasons why I felt that it was important to write this blog entry, as a way to share my personal experiences as someone who now understands, and to give advice on how I think we should be addressing the subject.

So how do you respond to someone sharing their grief with you?  How can we normalize death and open up the conversation?

The major misconception that I think needs to be cleared up is that you should avoid talking about someone’s loss because it will make them upset. Although different people grieve in different ways, my general experience has been that people want to talk about a lost loved one. By talking about that person, you keep their memory alive. The next time someone shares this personal part of their life with you, don’t shy away from the topic. Ask them ‘What was she/he like? What’s your favourite memory with them? What were his/her hobbies?’. Personally, I love talking about my Dad – it helps me keep him close.

Of course, sometimes I do get upset when talking about him. But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid bringing it up! In writing about the death of a close friend, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. When someone dies, the family and friends left behind don’t want to just pretend that person never existed. We want to talk about the music they liked and the jokes they used to make. We want to talk about precious memories and laughs we shared. But I’ve found it difficult to do so because over the years I’ve been met with discomfort and avoidance when I bring it up. I’m asking you, the reader, to help open up the conversation. By talking about them we can keep them as a part of our daily lives, even if they’re not physically with us anymore.

I’ll finish with a quote that someone shared with me when my Dad died. It means a great deal to me and it sums up my message wonderfully:

They say a man dies twice. Once when he stops breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions his name for the last time.”

Author: Christopher Creene


Christopher grew up in Bristol, England, and moved to Canada when he was 15. He completed a BSc. in Microbiology & Immunology at Dalhousie University, and subsequently spent a year working at the QEII Health Sciences Centre as a phlebotomist. He is now on his way to completing his first year of medical school at Schulich. He is passionate about running, music, and the environment.

Photo Credits: Flikr, Creative Commons