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Let’s talk about death and dying

Care Services Health Wellbeing
21 September 2020

In Australia death is something we rarely talk about, but the fact is that dying is an integral part of life.

Although end of life is universal, different cultures approach it differently.

In modern Western society, perhaps the only scenes that publicly remind us of the loss of loved ones are the Anzac Day or Remembrance Day parades, or the huge public displays of grief that occasionally happen after or when a celebrity like Princess Diana dies.

But the West hasn’t always dealt with death privately.

Three hundred years ago funerals were always held in the home, but over time the handling of dead bodies and funerals became outsourced to doctors and funeral directors.

Few people these days under the age of 40 have ever witnessed death firsthand, despite its pervasiveness in the media, and lack of familiarity means people are unsure how to grieve and mourn, or even how to talk about death.

Public grieving has also been suppressed in Western culture over the years.

We have lived through two world wars where soldiers and citizens have been expected to deal with death stoically, and silent stoicism has become the norm.

Some cultures express more openly

Fewer people attend churches on a regular basis now, too, so mass religious rituals have become less common. Some cultures still embrace public expressions of grief and are open about death.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deal with ‘sorry business’ using death rituals, dances and wailing songs as part of ceremonies held on traditional country.

These rituals continue over months or even years, until that person’s passage into their next life is complete and those left on earth have finished grieving.

In Mexico family members are remembered each year on the Day of the Dead, not as a time of mourning but as a time of celebration with colourful parades.

Graves are decorated and family members gather in cemeteries to dine not just among the departed, but with them, in the belief that they are returning to visit.

The Irish Wake, still popular in rural Irish villages, is perhaps one of the best known funeral traditions.

When a village elder dies, the family prepares the body themselves and they are lain in an open coffin in the front room.

The community, relatives, even strangers drop in to pray, feast, talk, gossip and openly mark the death with handshakes and reassuring words.

Through this ritual the living, the bereaved and the dead remain bound together.

Although death is unfamiliar to many in Western society, for people living and working in aged care death is part of life.

Residents are often elderly, nearing end of life or in the final stages of palliative care.

Rituals to help process and express grief

So, rather than keeping death private and hidden, public end of life rituals are used in aged care to assist residents and staff to process and express their grief, while providing community support for the bereaved.

IRT’s end of life recognition program includes a Guard of Honour ceremony to commemorate the last time a recently deceased resident leaves the front door.

Fellow residents, staff and family assemble in the foyer to form a procession as the departed is carried out, draped in a lovingly-handmade quilt.

A butterfly motif is also placed on the resident’s door as a mark of remembrance, and a memorial book is made available for friends, family and staff to record messages and favourite memories.

This has other benefits, as psychological studies have shown that writing about grief improves our immune system and our ability to cope.

Dying to know day – not taboo to talk

In more recent years, initiatives such as Dying to Know Day from The Groundswell Project, have been launched. The day, held on 8 August each year, is a day of awareness that aims to encourage Australians to take part in conversations and community activities around this often taboo topic.

Dying to Know Day is all about reopening channels of communication about death and grieving, recognising that death is less confronting if it is planned for, and openly acknowledged.

Although an annual event, the day’s message is impactful all year round and gives us the motivation to follow the lead other cultures and former generations who understood the importance of sharing the experience of death and bereavement.

The Dying to Know Day website is a wealth of resources at any time of year – chatterbox packs, discussion cards and books – or host a ‘Death over Dinner’ event to start a conversation and make a positive plan for end of life.

Visit the website at www.thegroundswellproject.com/dying-to-know-day

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