In August last year, the Co-op released an insightful and shocking report called Making peace with death, which documented our British attitude towards mortality and bereavement, as well as the way we prepare and plan for death. With over 30,000 participants of all ages, remarkably it was the first time such a comprehensive report had ever been conducted in this country. The findings were shocking, confirming the overwhelming taboo about death that exists in our British society today and highlighting the urgent need for this taboo to be addressed and broken.
The biggest revelation
The report made two interesting revelations. Firstly, it found that almost 91% of the British public have thought about their own mortality (with 35% of us thinking about it at least on a weekly basis). Secondly, it concluded that almost 18million of us are uncomfortable talking openly about death.
This is shocking as whilst a substantial percentage of us ponder our own death on a regular basis, why is it that we feel unable to openly share our thoughts and concerns with those closest to us? Why is it that the one eventuality that each and everyone of us will inevitably experience is a neglected part of everyday conversation, when really it should be the very thing that bonds us?
Stiff upper lip
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact root of this attitude as there are many factors at play here, the most prominent one being the stereotypical attribute of British people to remain stoic and emotionless in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, despite the melting pot of cultures and religions in Britain (particularly, London), this behavioural pattern remains heavily engrained in our society. We praise the bereaved for their strength and courage, rather than allowing them the space to express and release their pain. We tiptoe around any conversation about or mention of the person who has died, for fear of triggering an emotional response in those that mourn them. Public tears are met with sympathy and pity, instead of admiration and awe.
Other cultures have more open and expressive attitudes to grief. For example, in China, mourners are encouraged to release their grief through outwardly sobbing and wailing. Some rituals even include hiring professional wailers to ensure that young people are not embarrassed or fearful of public displays of emotion. The Chinese see this expression of letting out the pain and heartache they have suffered after the loss of a loved one as a ritualistic form of therapy.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the report also highlighted the fact that the average British person first suffers a bereavement of someone close to them aged 20 and starts to contemplate death aged 26. Therefore, whilst British people are generally living longer and placing a considerable emphasis on prolonging and living life, the reality is that we are still facing loss and contemplating death at a very young age.
Western society is filled with overachievers and ambitious individuals, who consider public emotion to be a form of weakness. As children and teens, we are taught that in order to be successful in our educational and professional lives, we must leave our personal struggles and tragedies at home. However, by inhibiting open conversation in both personal and professional spheres of our lives, we give ourselves no space to feel and express hardship and suffering.This attitude to death and loss is suppressive and dangerous. In order to ‘survive’ in the competitive and superficial world we have built, grievers feel forced to bottle up their emotions, which can manifest later on in life in the form of anxiety and depression.
How do we change our society’s attitude to death and loss? By learning from from other cultures who see then open expression of suffering and pain as a necessary and valid part of life. By teaching our children that emotional intelligence is not a sign of weakness or vulnerability but sharing personal thoughts and experiences, no matter how painful, is the most valuable way of connecting with those around you.
Meera Elbay, Founder
Your New Normal