Let’s talk about pain

In an increasingly secularised society, suffering noisily beats suffering in silence

By Michael Cook

“I feel your pain,” Bill Clinton told an AIDS activist in the 1992 presidential campaign. Well, he probably didn’t. Pain is notoriously subjective and hard to measure. Some patients take the dentist’s drill without an anaesthetic; most of us would rather die.

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries doctors speculated why some groups were more sensitive. Their answers reflected the cultural and racial prejudices of the era. One popular theory was that less civilised groups were both less sensitive to pain and more expressive when they experienced it. Doctors contrasted stalwart, stoic Britons with degenerate, weeping dark-skinned people.

A contrasting theory was that civilisation was making people soft. The father of modern neurology, Silas Weir Mitchell, wrote in 1892 that “in our process of being civilized we have won, I suspect, intensified capacity to suffer. The savage does not feel pain as we do: nor as we examine the descending scale of life do animals seem to have the acuteness of pain-sense at which we have arrived.”

Today the opioid epidemic makes the study of differential rates of pain more urgent than it ever was. Current research seems to indicate that Americans in lower socio-economic groups experience more pain.

“If you’re looking at all pain – mild, moderate and severe combined – you do see a difference across socioeconomic groups. And other studies have shown that,” says University at Buffalo medical sociologist Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk. “But if you look at the most severe pain, which happens to be the pain most associated with disability and death, then the socioeconomically disadvantaged are much, much more likely to experience it.”

It’s also relevant in the debate over assisted suicide. Remember Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman whose assisted suicide in Oregon sent a powerful message to Californians to legalise assisted suicide? Shortly before dying, she said, “I don’t want to die. But I am dying. Death with dignity is the phrase I’m comfortable using. I am choosing to go in a way that is with less suffering and less pain.” Pain, or even the prospect of pain, is often regarded as sufficient reason to ask a doctor’s help in committing suicide.

From the point of view of a utilitarian, an increasingly popular philosophy, any pain might be enough to justify suicide. Indeed, the pessimistic South African philosopher David Benatar argues that “a life filled with good and containing only the most minute amounts of bad – a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick – is worse than no life at all” (Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, 2008).

Coming at pain from a different perspective, linguistics expert David Johnson, of Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, has opened up another line of research. In an article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion he charted the frequency of the words “pain” and “hurt” since the year 1800 in four linguistic databases: Google Books Corpus, Corpus of Contemporary American English, Corpus of Historical American English, and Time Magazine Corpus. What he found was a sharp increase in “pain language” in American English since the 1960s. And over the same period words like “religion” and “God” and related concepts like “mortification”, “patience”, “dread”, and “sin” declined steeply.

Why? It is impossible to propose a definitive answer based on word usage, but Johnson’s investigation points at some intriguing lines of inquiry. His theory is that “this growth parallels the era when language related to the divine was in sharp decline”. In other words, a much greater willingness to talk about pain is correlated to a decrease in religious motivation for enduring pain.

… increasing American secularism plays a significant role. After all, the dilemma of the co- existence of pain and a good God is an eternal problem. To suffer in silence is lauded as the appropriate Christian response to pain. And there is a long Christian tradition of promoting suffering in silence … 

But with the increasing secularization in 20th and 21st century American society, notions of Christian stoic piety evaporated; thus, people discuss their pain more. And why not? If suffering in silence is not meritorious nor does it assist in religious redemption, then, like [the Greek mythological figure] Philoctetes, sufferers should complain all they want. If for no other reason, it might make them feel better. Interestingly, the data presented above does show an increase in pain, particularly since the 1960s in American English, which coincides with the same era when language related to the divine was in sharp decline.

This is hardly a watertight proof that secularism is responsible for our increasing sensitivity to suffering, but it sems like a plausible explanation. The central symbol of Christianity is the Cross, two crossed beams of wood with a man who claimed to be God nailed to them. It is, in other words, a religion which purports to explain the mystery of suffering by asking us to contemplate the example of God himself. Secularism’s answer to inescapable pain is “stuff happens” or “life’s a bitch and then you die”.

The ancient wisdom of mankind –Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu — is that we can bear any suffering if we find meaning in it. But without meaning, all we can do is talk about it. Endlessly. As Johnson points out, if “proscriptions against complaining or even discussing pain are removed, the modern American sees little reason to withhold discussion of pain.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death as a Design Challenge

Last year Elaine Fong’s mother used the Washington Death with Dignity Act. Elaine shared the experience of helping her mother fulfill her end-of-life wishes in a TEDx San Francisco presentation in October 2017.

Elaine told us, “Our family is grateful to have given our mom a peaceful death and to fulfill her end of life wishes in this way. I wanted to share the experience we had with the world, because I understand how important it is to have this honest conversation, and because it was her wish to help others be brave too. Her life would have ended painfully if it were not for this policy and the work you all have done.”

The Creepy And Fascinating History of How Humans Get Rid of Their Dead


When your old Aunt Petunia passes away, there’s a good chance her body will either be reduced to ash inside a purpose-built kiln or buried in an expensive (but not too expensive) wooden box next to the decaying remains of Uncle Harold.

If only she’d lived in another time, or another place, things could have been very different.

Different cultures have disposed of human remains in wide variety of ways, some a little more colourful than others.

And we might need to revisit some of them soon, because, let’s face it, we can’t keep packing our dead into prime real estate.

In this 5-minute TED-Ed video, historian and author Keith Eggener digs deep into the past of funerary practices to explore how today’s cemeteries evolved, and imagines where they’ll be in the future.

The history of the human funeral is a tough topic to study. Other animals typically have little to do with the remains of their loved ones, and if we go back far enough, our ancestors were no different.

So at some point in history we went from stepping around dead bodies to purposefully disposing of them. Identifying when this change took place is a bit of a challenge.

Several hundred thousand year old hominin bones found in a pit in Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains were once hypothesised to be the oldest evidence of a mortuary ritual, on account of being found among tools nobody in their right mind would throw down a hole.

Recent research has cast doubt on that thought, suggesting the much more gruesome explanation of cannibalism and leaving the question of just when our rituals first evolved up for debate.

Neanderthals were almost certainly interring the remains of the dead with respect tens of thousands of years ago.

The charred remains of an Australian Aboriginal woman near Lake Mungo represent the oldest cremation, at around 40,000 years old. So we’ve been disposing of the dead for at least as long as that.

Even if we can’t settle on an exact ‘when’, we’re left with the question of ‘why?’

Mortuary practices were well underway long before writing was a thing, so we can only speculate their reasons.

Eggener suggests the first burials might have been less than reverent, with those low on the social ladder being thrown into a pit while those higher up were given a fancy send-off.

At some point it’s possible that some viewed burial as a more appealing option, preferring it to being dried or eaten in plain sight.

Whatever the inspiration was, burials were relatively common by the time the first settlements appeared around 10,000 years ago. Cultures far and wide began to store their dead in shared locations, such as underground catacombs or suburban necropolises.

In fact, we get the word ‘cemetery’ from ancient Greek words meaning sleeping chamber.

Today we see these kinds of landscapes as sombre spots for quiet contemplation. Yet this whole ‘rest in peace’ attitude has also varied throughout the centuries.

Eggener describes the medieval cemetery as a place where markets and fairs were often held, and farmers would graze their livestock (apparently grass grown over graves made for sweeter milk – try using that in your advertising these days!).

Our historical appreciation of the cemetery as a community centre began to lose its appeal by the end of the 19th century, coinciding with the rise in popularity of public parks and botanical gardens, says Eggener.

But even today there a range of funeral alternatives still in practice.

Various forms of so-called sky burial can still be found in remote parts of Tibet and Mongolia, for example, where bodies are deliberately left to the elements and scavengers to consume.

There are also plenty of examples of mummification still happening around the world, where bodies are preserved in some manner before being housed with dignity.

Expanding populations in city centres and value in recycling and reusing resources might soon see an end to the traditional cemetery, forcing us to rethink our attitudes towards the dead.

Knowing what the future of death will look like is almost as speculative as understanding our past. Eggener has a few suggestions which are well worth considering.

Maybe Aunt Petunia should be turned into a tattoo. It’s not like she wanted to spend eternity next to Uncle Harold anyway.

Complete Article HERE!

Mortals Anonymous:

Inside the Cafés Where People Go to Talk About Dying

By Lexi Pandell

We sat in a circle, clutching paper cups full of steaming coffee and tea. First, I said my name. “Hi, I’m Lexi.” What came next wasn’t an admission of addiction, but a statement about what I feared most about death. “I fear the unknown,” I began, but paused. That didn’t quite sum it up. My voice tight from nerves, I added, “Nothingness. Losing everything I’ve ever known. The whole thing, really.”

This is life at Death Café, an event where strangers gather to snack and chat about shuffling off this mortal coil. It sounds (literally) morbid, but in this Age of Anxiety, as people grapple with climate change, threats of violence, and political and economic instability, death lingers on many people’s minds. A fear of dying is at the root of all those stressful issues and, as Sheldon Solomon put it when speaking to The Atlantic in 2015, those things are “all malignant manifestations of death anxiety running amok.” It’s cyclical: Anxiety spiral, fear of death, bad decisions, rinse, repeat. Despite this, people rarely talk about their own mortality. Death Cafés strive to break that taboo.

That moniker—Death Café—is both the name of the organization that came up with a format for these death-discussion groups and the term for the meetings themselves. The gatherings can be hosted anywhere—community centers, living rooms, hospices, or regular old coffee shops. I attended one in a funeral home. They cost nothing to attend and, as the official website reads, “in the Death Café there are no hierarchies. We all meet simply as people who are going to die.” Though some attendees may have lost loved ones, it’s not a place for bereavement or grief counseling. It’s also not the place to attempt to convert anyone to a religion. Rather, it’s intended as an open, salon-style conversation. The experiences I’ve had varied wildly: At one of them, two people claimed to have seen ghosts. Another veered toward practical discussions of funeral and estate planning. I’ve met people who’ve had near-death experiences, who are terminally ill, who deal with death as part of their daily work, who are afraid of death (or not), and who believe in the afterlife (or, like me, don’t).

The gatherings are run like AA meetings about death (think of it as MA: “Mortals Anonymous”), but the precise format depends on the host. The greatest commonality is offering attendees something to eat or drink, typically cake or another sweet accompanied by coffee or tea. “It’s life-sustaining,” says Megan Mooney, Death Café’s social media head. “It makes people feel more comfortable talking about death.”

The concept began with “café mortels,” created in 2004 by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz. The events were adapted and popularized as “death cafés” by Jon Underwood, who held the first one in the basement of his London home. Soon after, he and his mother, Sue Barsky Reed, started an official website with guidelines for anyone who wanted to host their own. From the beginning, the Death Café organization has been not-for-profit and run entirely by volunteers. Today, associated events are held in more than 60 countries. Though Underwood died suddenly last year at age 44, his mother and his sister, Jools Barsky, now run the organization.

Memento Mori

Death, you could say, is having a moment. Organizations like Underwood’s—as well as Death Salon and Death Over Dinner—are helping people talk about it. YouTube channels like Caitlin Doughty‘s popular “Ask a Mortician” are helping people learn about it. So, too, is Doughty’s group The Order of the Good Death, which aims to bring together funeral industry professionals, academics, artists, and others to help our death-phobic culture confront mortality. There has even been a recent spate of buzzy death-related books, like Mary Roach’s Stiff or Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.

Yet, when it comes to appropriate cocktail party conversation, death is often put in a corner along with sex and money. Many prefer to avoid it altogether, even when faced with old age or terminal illness.

Our aversion to death is rooted, of course, in evolution. In psychology, there’s a term known as “terror management theory,” which refers to the fact that, while humans intellectually understand the inevitability of death, our survival instinct protects us from fully confronting it. Many, instead, seek a kind of immortality through their beliefs about the afterlife, their offspring, or even fame. Humans are wired to fear dying—and to be superstitious about it.

“People don’t want to talk about death because talking about it makes it real,” says Mooney, who researches mortality for the University of Missouri and is also a social worker for hospice and end-of-life care. “But there’s a saying in the Death Café world that talking about sex won’t make you pregnant and talking about death won’t make you die.”

Still, it’s scary at first. Do you remember the first time you realized you were going to die? Like, really realized it? I do. For me, it happened around age 9 during a visit to my grandparents’ home in Long Island. As I lay in a twin-sized guest bed listening to the sound of cicadas chirruping in the humid summer night, an understanding of my mortality hit me like a wave. Nothing in particular inspired this feeling, but there it was, definite and staggering. Someday, I will die. A pit grew in my stomach, the edges of my vision went dark. I cried out for my mother and when she came to me I told her, sobbing, what I’d been thinking about. Ever the realist, she brushed back my hair and said, “Of course, sweetheart. We all will. But you won’t for a very long time, so try not to worry about it.”

I worried anyway. Throughout childhood, I probably obsessed about death more than the average kid considering I kept a folder on my computer’s desktop titled “In Case I Die.” (Naturally, it was full of terrible poetry to read at my funeral, letters to friends, and directives about who should inherit my book collection in case of my untimely demise.) It was twee more than practical, but when I was a teenager, several family members died without planning much—one after a battle with terminal disease, another more suddenly—leaving the rest of the family to deal with their possessions and unclear wishes amid our grief. I vowed I wouldn’t pass as they did.

Yet seriously thinking about my own mortality still terrified me, even years later as I got my start in journalism as a crime reporter and became inured to regularly reading grisly coroner’s reports. Eventually, it was time to face the music. I forget how I first learned of Death Café, but the concept hit on something I needed to explore.

Funeral Parlor

Like me, Louvain Rees’ interest in death changed after her father passed. Today, she’s a historian who studies death and remembrance in Welsh culture. Because there were no Death Cafés hosted near her in Wales, Rees will soon be hosting one of her own at St. Fagans National Museum of History, which will include handling sessions with the museums’ “mourning collection,” such as jewelry made from human hair. “I cannot say that I have fully accepted the inevitable,” she says, “but I am in the process of doing so.”

Discussing death can feel a bit like talking about a hangover while you’re still enjoying the party, yet it can be immensely liberating and help prioritize what’s important in life. Mooney, who grew up dreaming of being a mortician, hosted her first Death Café in 2013 and, since then, has helped kick off events in Hong Kong and Austin. A pivotal moment came when her death-avoidant father attended the first café she ever hosted. Soon after, he began picking out funeral songs. “Every time I got in the car, he played Patty Loveless’ ‘How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,'” she says. “From that, he planned his funeral, made health care directives, did everything.” Death Café not only helped him confront his own mortality, she says, but made things much easier for her when he passed away nine months ago.

“I started making some big changes in my life because I didn’t feel like I was being true to myself,” Mooney says. “I felt I was just existing in certain areas of my life.”

Likewise, attending Death Cafés have loosened something in me. I haven’t gotten over all of my fears, and that’s fine. Death Café doesn’t aim to eliminate existential dread; it’s just about opening dialogue about something we’ll all have to face someday. It’s eye-opening to walk into a room full of strangers and remember that you have one essential thing in common. I’ve always been the youngest one in the room at these meetings and, several times, people have come up to me at the end of meetings to commend me for it.

“You’re so young to be thinking about death,” one older woman said to me. “I wish I had done this at your age.”

Complete Article HERE!

Exercise can help you work through grief

”The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her”
— unknown

By Kathy Hansen

On Oct. 21, my world was rocked with the somewhat sudden loss of my mother. Although she lived an amazing 85 years, I was not prepared for the depth of the loss I felt that day and am still feeling as I write this column. I had heard through the years that the death of your mother is a loss like no other, and boy is that spot on. I have never felt so sad, angry and lost all at the same time ever in my life.

With the passing of time, the help of some wonderful friends and my church family, I know that eventually I will be OK. At the present however, sleep is hard to come by and my healthy diet has gone out the window with all the well-meaning folks bringing by comfort foods. The one thing I have been able to maintain, however, is my exercise routine.

Any significant loss in your life can trigger a powerful grieving process. A death in your family, the loss of a pet, divorce, or even being laid off may send you whirling down a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Numbness, anger, denial, despair, isolation, and depression all are par for the course when you’re grieving. What makes it even more frustrating is that it is not always an orderly process. I find myself being sad one moment, angry or “salty” as I like to call it the next, to feeling OK for a while. It is really frustrating and draining.

When you’re in the throes of such intense emotion, your instinct may be to isolate yourself alone in your bedroom, or it may be to surround yourself with people for distraction. There is no right or wrong process, only what works for you, but there is one activity that seems to offer benefit universally for virtually every grieving person who tries it, and that is exercise.

Here are a few of the ways that exercise can help you get through your grief:

— Improves your sense of control: Grieving and loss take all of your sense of control away. Intense exercise where you have to focus to perform the activity gives you control back.

— Increased circulation to the brain: Exercise of any kind increases blood flow to the brain. When you are in the throes of grief, it is hard to think straight. Exercise can remove the brain fog and help you focus on more positive thoughts.

— Improved sleep: People who exercise are able to fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Inability to sleep is a huge side effect of grief. By making sure you are keeping up your fitness routine, you can get the rest you need to deal with your emotions.

— Relieves depression: Exercise is one the best ways to alleviate depression. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, all natural and body-made mood elevators. This can alleviate the need for the use of pharmaceuticals to manage your grief.

— Relieves anxiety: The loss of a loved one can trigger tons of anxiety. Working through funeral arrangements, wills, etc., can be a huge stressor. Exercise can trigger the body to release what are called GABA neurotransmitters in the brain that can induce a feeling of calm.

While exercise will not take the pain and sadness of your loss away, it can help you get through it. Grieving is a process that has to be worked through to the end. I am trying my best to look at it like a CrossFit WOD. I know the workout is going to be long, grueling and sometimes painful but, in the end, it will make me a stronger person.

Complete Article HERE!

How the First World War changed public mourning in Britain

Remembrance Sunday was yesterday, the 11th of November. The two-minute silence, held at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, provided a moment for the country to remember the sacrifices so many people made and to say thank you.

This year, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War, The Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland have launched a campaign to say ‘Thank You’ to all who served, sacrificed and changed our world through the conflict.

WWI impact on bereavement and mourning

The National Service of Remembrance will centre on the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Built to provide a focus for public mourning, the Cenotaph and an estimated 100,000 war memorials in the UK today provide a powerful reminder of how the First World War had a profound impact on British attitudes to bereavement and mourning.

The huge number of soldiers killed in the war – around three quarters of a million British servicemen – caused an overwhelming sense of grief throughout British society. Historian Adrian Gregory estimates that almost everyone in the country experienced the loss of friends or neighbours, with three million British people losing a close relative.

Whole battalions of volunteers from the same town were killed. In July 1916, after the first day of the battle of the Somme, the local paper in Barnsley reported: “There is hardly a home that has not experienced some great loss or suffered some poignant sorrow.”

In a society that had once mourned openly, private mourning became a coping mechanism. “Soldiers and bereaved families largely repressed their emotions and coped in silence,” writes Patricia Jalland in 1914-1918 online.

Public mourning

It has been suggested that the public commemoration of the war dead took the place of traditional family mourning, and possibly marks the start of our society’s struggle to talk openly about death and dying.

With weaker religious influence and medical advances causing a gradual shift away from the Victorians’ attitudes to death and dying, the First World War hastened the change. The way of grieving has since changed and this has led to private mourning and public acts of commemoration we are more familiar with today.  

The fact that many of dead were buried where they had fallen and most families denied the comfort of a funeral cemented the change. Without a body to bury and no grave to visit, traditional mourning rituals were not possible and people found new ways to mourn their dead.

Some followed the funeral cortèges of soldiers unknown to them. The notion that one dead soldier could symbolise all those who had died was enshrined in The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

Reverend David Railton, an army chaplain who had seen a battlefield grave marked by a rough cross and the words ‘An Unknown British Soldier’, wrote to the Dean of Westminster after the war. He suggested that an unidentified British soldier be buried in the abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands who died during the First World War.

On the 11th of November 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, in a grave containing soil from France and covered by a slab of black Belgian marble, the body of the Unknown Warrior was buried at the west end of the Nave of Westminster Abbey.

Saying Thank You

In this centenary year, The Royal British Legion has launched a mass movement to say ‘Thank You’ to all who served, sacrificed, and changed our world during the First World War. The charity is calling on mass involvement from the public to mark 100 years since the end of the conflict.

Thank You will honour not only the 1.1 million British and Commonwealth Armed Forces who lost their lives in the First World War, but also those who played their part on the home front, and those who returned to build a better life for the benefit of generations to come.

Many events have been organised in the run-up to 11th November and there are lots of ways you can say Thank You. Whether your personal Thank You is an event dedicated to those who made a difference in your community, a visit to a place of significance, or a simple tweet, there’s no limit to the ways people can take part. For ideas and more information visit the Thank You page on The Royal British Legion website or follow the hashtag #ThankYou100.

Complete Article HERE!

The Pet Cemetery

Filmmaker Sam Green was just about to fly out of Columbus, Ohio when his friend offered to make a quick detour. “She asked if I wanted to see a little pet cemetery that’s across the street from the airport,” Green told The Atlantic. Armed with his camera, Green captured the tombstones of a menagerie of dearly departed animals, some dating back to the early twentieth century. His short film, Julius Caesar was Buried in a Pet Cemetery, featuring an original score from Yo La Tengo, showcases the pets’ final resting place—and the human love they once inspired.

Green said that he finds graveyards for pets especially moving because the headstones tend to be much more emotive than those found in human cemeteries. “You can say, ‘Buster was the best parakeet who ever lived,’” said Green. “With human graves, everything is so much more constrained. People love their animals in such an intense way and are able to express that love in a much freer way than they can about people they’ve lost.”

“You have gone and left such emptiness that time can never fill,” reads a grave for a dog named Jiggs Boy, who died in 1933.