This opinion piece was published in the Sunday Independent on 23 June 2013
Death: it’s time to break the taboo
When I was a child, certain subjects were never discussed. Adults might make guarded references, in oblique terms, when they thought the children weren’t listening. And if we dared even to hint at the issue, we’d probably earn ourselves a klap round the ear. There was no open, honest discussion, even though we all knew, and we all knew that we knew, this stuff existed. Local scandals were just such subjects. There were huge no-go areas across most topics associated with sex. Nowadays, it seems sex is everywhere, while death is the subject we find increasingly difficult to discuss openly.
Madiba’s latest spell in hospital has had us once again dancing around the subject, though I was glad to see that alongside our heartfelt prayers for his recovery, there is also growing acceptance that he cannot go on for ever, and calls that we must learn to let him go. This is both good and necessary, for Madiba’s sake and for ours. In fact, a more honest attitude to our own mortality helps us all in the daily business of life.
It troubles me that we have become so poor at addressing this fundamental part of what it means to be truly human. Being in denial risks diminishing our capacity to lead a full life. Sometimes, especially when death comes through accidents, our language can carry the implication that dying only happens to an unfortunate few, as if the rest of us went on for ever.
We also try to cushion ourselves, with euphemistic references to people “passing”. Too often, all this has the opposite effect of what it is designed to do. It makes dealing with dying and death – whether our own or others’ – far harder, because it denies the reality and normality, as well as the enormity and the awfulness, of death. And it gets in the way of proper grieving. We cannot avoid these, and we ought not to, if we wish to be emotionally healthy.
Urbanisation may have a lot to do with the rise of death as the “last taboo”. We are increasingly distant from the creation of which we are a part: the natural cycles of the seasons, and the mysteries of birth and growth, life and death, all around us. Instead, we create concrete jungles, as if with good enough technology we can control our environment and everything that happens within it, from managing our workplace climate through to buying fresh strawberries all year round. But there are things that we cannot control, and mortality is one of them.
If we admit to our own mortality, we are more able to appreciate the seasons of our own lives, and our own and others’ intrinsic dignity, whatever our age or circumstances. The elderly and frail should never be treated like some obsolete products that have outlived their usefulness and are fit only to be “discontinued”.
Yet, we must not belittle the awfulness of death, even when we have faith in life beyond the grave. It will always remain a frightening prospect, unknowable and inescapable. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed he might avoid his impending death, saying: “May this cup pass my lips.” But through wrestling with the prospect before him, he was able to reach a point of resolution, praying to God the Father: “Yet not my will but yours be done.”
All of us, too, should dare to wrestle with our own eventual mortality – and those who are terminally ill or old and frail particularly need emotional space to do this, as do their nearest and dearest. Being able to speak together with honesty at such times is one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.
Honesty around death is also the greatest help we can give at times of bereavement. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard is “Be strong and weep”.
Death can feel incomprehensible. It is almost more than our minds can grasp that someone who was so alive is now gone from us. We need our rituals at these times. These long-established practices around death and funerals, which time has taught our communities to follow, can act as effective vehicles for carrying us through unavoidable pain and sorrow. Engaging with them constructively can enable us to look back later and know that we have done what we ought, for the one who has died, and for ourselves. They may also offer the words we cannot find ourselves, and provide “safe” places for us to let our grief flow freely. We should all be able to admit how hard we find a loved one’s death, and to do whatever our mourning requires of us.
I’m always shocked when journalists report that people or communities are “still coming to terms” with tragic events, only a day or so after they have taken place. Surely we all know that it takes a year, even two, truly to deal with the death of a close family member? Some deaths leave us changed for ever, as when parents lose a child. Let us be tender with one another, when life brings such agony.
At first sight, one of the strangest of the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It is important to realise that this certainly does not mean death and bereavement are a good thing. By no means. But it does mean that we all need to do our “grief work”, if we are not to remain stuck and unable to go forward. Being real about death helps us better live in the present and plan for the future of those we love – even if it is a future in which we know we shall not ourselves participate. It gives a truer perspective, not least enabling us to use our resources well, for the common good and for future generations, rather than in our fear feeling we must use everything for ourselves “before it is too late”.
As a country, we also need to do our grief work. There is much unfinished mourning to be done for the pains and sorrows of apartheid.
And, of course, we also need to do our grief work about the inevitable passing of all our great Struggle heroes. Many we have mourned well, letting them go while retaining their legacy. Walter and Albertina Sisulu are two I often recall, and though I miss Ma Sisulu in particular, my emotions are dominated by gratitude for all she was and all she did, and by determination to honour her life through the choices and actions of my own life.
Now the time is drawing close when we must do the same for Madiba. Let us not be afraid to use the ancient words of the Night Prayer – may God grant him a peaceful night, and a good end.