Death is a fact of life. But it’s one that many people would love to avoid talking about at all costs.
Maybe it’s superstition: somehow, if we don’t speak of it, it won’t affect us. But death is inescapable.
So how do we prepare our kids to confront loss?
‘We are a death-denying society’
Christa Ovenell is working hard to change the dialogue and attitudes around death.
She’s an end-of-life educator and created the Vancouver-based organization Death’s Apprentice as a way to help people and families openly prepare for death and accept it as a natural progression of life. But it’s a hard switch to flip in a society that holds youth and vitality in such high regard.
“Think about, for example, in Mexico, where we would have a weeklong celebration for the Day of the Dead, that we would actually go and make our dead a part of our life,” says Ovenell.
“We don’t do that here. Because we are a death-denying society. And that’s what makes it so hard.”
Use straightforward language
The death of a loved one can be incredibly difficult, but for kids it can be especially confusing.
You could throw on an endless loop of Disney movies where someone’s mother always seems to be dying, or you could simply talk about death — and how it’s a completely natural part of life — before big emotions become attached to it.
Ovenell wants death to be normalized and openly discussed from an early age, just as we’ve become more open to talking about sexual health and addiction, for example.
A good start is using straightforward language, “the way we do in other tough or difficult conversations,” she says.
“Real words like, ‘someone died,’ or, ‘the cat died.’ Just normalizing it, making it just part of what kids hear, instead of funny things like, ‘Grandpa is resting,’ or, ‘so-and-so has passed.'”
Openness toward death needs to extend to all ways in which life can end. There are no “good” or “noble” ways people die. Whether from suicide or an overdose, everyone’s life has meaning and should be mourned when it ends.
Once someone a child knows dies, it can be difficult for a parent to help them process their feelings while grieving themselves. Grief is not a linear process and it raises many emotions.
Local mom Megan Cindric says the recent and sudden loss of her father has deeply affected her and her twin daughters, Fiona and Lily. Cindric wants to make sure her daughters know however they choose to remember their grandfather is valid, and that she’s just as affected by the loss.
“I am still sad every single day, and so I think it’s completely normal that Fiona is sad every day,” says Cindric.
“When she does get sad I tell her that I understand because I’m sad every day, too. And this is very normal because we loved Grandpa and we still love Grandpa.”
Cindric found both her girls understood their grandfather’s passing once she explained that he was more than just his body, and that would never change.
“I told them … when his body just couldn’t live any more, I could tell that he was different. I could tell that all of the things that made him Grandpa — his energy and his love and his spirit — I could tell that it was gone.
“I could tell that his body had stopped but all of his ‘Grandpa-ness’ had gone somewhere else,” she says.
Religion can bring many people comfort when it comes to confronting the afterlife, but some find solace elsewhere.
Cindric says she was recently in the garden her father had lovingly tended for years when a little green frog came and sat on the colander she was holding. When she told her girls about it, Cindric says they all agreed on one thing: “Fiona said, ‘I think that was Grandpa,’ and I said, ‘I kind of thought it was him, too.'”
There are two things in life we all experience without fail: being born and dying. While one event is celebrated, the other we spend our lives trying to outrun.
But like many topics that have made us uncomfortable in the past, if we push through that discomfort and openly discuss them with our kids, we take their fearful power away.
No matter who we’ve lost, their lives have affected us for the better — and death can’t ever lessen that.
Grieving the loss of a loved one tops the list of the most stressful life events, according to Verywell Mind. Grief can feel like sadness, anger, confusion, shock, guilt, and emptiness — or even multiple emotions, all experienced at once. And though time may not completely heal all wounds related to loss, grief can be processed and managed over time with the help of therapy, a trusted support network, and gentle self-care days.
Another source of comfort can be found in self-help books about loss. Bereavement resource website Grief and Sympathy explains that reading books about grief and death can expose us to stories of other people’s losses, helping us to feel less alone. Additionally, some books are written by mental health experts who offer research-backed advice and useful coping strategies.
If you’ve recently experienced the death of a loved one, turn to these five self-help books to help walk you through the grieving process.
How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies
Therese A. Rando, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and grief, wrote “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies” in 1991, and the book has remained a go-to for those in mourning ever since. “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies” acts as a comprehensive guide to grief, offering both emotional and practical guidance, from how to cope with loss during the holidays to how to plan a funeral.
This book is an all-in-one starter if you’re unsure how to pick up the pieces following death. And in the months and years following, too, its gentle advice continues to prove useful on those days when grief reappears.
It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok
“It’s OK That You’re Not OK” may be just as helpful for the bereaved as it is for their friends and loved ones who aren’t sure how to respond. The book, written by Megan Devine after she tragically lost her partner (per The New York Times), treats grief as a natural response to death, not as a feeling to be minimized.
“It’s OK That You’re Not OK” offers essays, practical life advice, and research to normalize every step of the grieving process. For those looking to make space for their feelings, in a society where those feelings aren’t always understood, this book is indispensable.
The Other Side of Sadness
If you want a scientific understanding of the grieving process, look to “the most renowned grief researcher in the United States,” according to The Atlantic, George Bonanno. His book, “The Other Side of Sadness,” offers digestible research along with the story of Bonanno’s own loss of his father, to help make sense of grief’s complex emotions.
“The Other Side of Sadness” offers a much-needed reminder that there’s not one “right” way to experience loss. In particular, this book is ideal for those who grieve quietly or with a sense of relief or happiness, emotions that aren’t often discussed in grief self-help books.
Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet
The loss of a pet can be just as devastating as the loss of a human family member. Yet the grief that can follow the loss of a furry friend isn’t often discussed or validated in society, and many loved ones may not know what to say when someone’s pet dies. The bond shared with a pet is a special one and can require a different approach than the stories and research often shared in self-help books on grief.
That’s where “Goodbye, Friend” comes in. The book, written by Gary Kowalski, honors the connection humans share with their animal friends with chapters on processing death, talking to children about pet loss, and giving pets a loving goodbye.
Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief
“Bearing the Unbearable” understands that grief can be an all-encompassing experience, one where you may not feel ready or able to sit down and focus on long book chapters. That might be why this book contains short, easy-to-read sections, making it an approachable companion during life’s hardest times.
Author Joanne Cacciatore is an expert in grief, having counseled people experiencing traumatic loss, as well as navigating the loss of her daughter and other beloved family members. “Bearing the Unbearable” puts the grieving process into relatable words through personal accounts that are just as tear-jerking as they are comforting.
— As we continue re-writing the rules of work, it’s time to address one of the biggest taboos in life and work: death.
By Lars Schmidt
I’ve been living with grief most of my life.
I lost my mother to a long battle with multiple sclerosis in my early 20s. I lost my father to cancer in my early 30s. I lost my brother, the last remaining member of my immediate family, to addiction in my late 30s.
My experience isn’t unique. We’ve all lost loved ones. We all carry the scars of grief, heartbreak, and loss. And yet, despite the fact that death is a part of life, we rarely discuss it candidly. That lack of openness creates a stigma that isolates those grieving in their greatest time of need.
This is especially true when it comes to work—a place where we spend so much of our lives. In these settings, we’re expected to compartmentalize our feelings and carry on.
As more companies embrace mental health as a fourth pillar of employee benefits, it’s time they factor in grief in all its forms into their programs. Grief-specific training for managers. Rethinking bereavement policies. Support systems for employees. Flexible leave programs beyond the traditional bereavement period. Normalizing (and even encouraging) conversations on grief at work.
Death, loss, and grief are universal conditions. While our journeys through grief are individual, the experience is collective. It’s time we recognize that reality and bring more empathy to how we support grieving employees.
Carrying the Weight of the World
Despite the fact that many workplaces maintain an outdated perspective toward grieving, the pandemic has brought death and suffering to the forefront of our consciousness. According to the World Health Organization, we’ve lost 6.54 million lives to COVID-19 over the past two-plus years, including over one million lives lost in the United States alone, making COVID the third-leading cause of death in 2021, according to the CDC.
COVID grief is not limited to death. Research from the Brookings Institute shows Long COVID may be keeping four million people out of work in the United States alone. The loss of lifestyle and agency creates its own type of grief and mental health struggles—a risk that may be exacerbated in cases where psychological stress existed before infection, according to researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The pandemic–fueled increase in mental health struggles is a global phenomenon. Earlier this year, the WHO cited a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. “The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General in a scientific brief published earlier this year. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
The stress and burdens society carries show up in life, including work. It’s time employers rethink how they meet this moment.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers above as just data, but we can’t forget what they represent. Mothers. Fathers. Neighbors. Colleagues. Mentors. Friends.
The human toll of the pandemic and the mental health struggles that have been building over the past several years will continue to have a profound impact on our society and our workplaces for years to come. The time for companies to adapt to this reality is now.
The Toll of Unresolved Grief
The journey through grief is nonlinear. For some, grief is an acute pain followed by a full recovery. For others, grief is an endless sea with waves that ebb and flow for eternity.
The study found that unresolved grief costs companies billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and performance. It found that unresolved grief is a pervasive, overlooked leadership derailer that affects perhaps one-third of senior executives at one time or another.
Living with grief means you often don’t have control over when these emotions manifest. The mental health struggles of navigating this pain are very real. Grief triggers can be known: birthdays, anniversaries, songs. They can also come from seemingly nowhere and send you down a spiral of emotions.
I vividly remember a work offsite at a former employer where we were asked by a facilitator to point to where we were from on a map. It was two years after I lost my father and I was still processing that pain.
When it was my turn to point, I couldn’t. The seemingly benign exercise of pointing to your hometown on a map made me think of what I no longer had there: the deep voice and warm embrace of my father that was gone forever. I broke down in front of my entire team, and had to step away from the exercise.
Living (and Working) With Grief
Grief and recovering are personal, individual journeys, yet most employers view them as one-size-fits-all. Bereavement plans are typically three to seven days in the United States. Rigid applications of the guidelines are not nearly enough to account for the post-grief emotional haze that can last weeks or more.
Kyle Cupp, manager of content services strategy at Mineral, tragically lost his son Jonathan and shared his experience in a USA Today piece. “To my colleagues, I probably appear to be holding up reasonably well,” he wrote. “I’m able at times to smile, laugh, and joke. That isn’t to say my grief isn’t evident to the members of my team, however blurred it may be over the computer screen. … You can’t keep grief out of the workplace. It will be shared. The alternative is to make a place for it.”
When you make place for grief in the workplace, you give grieving employees space to deal with their emotions as they come. You remove the need for a forced-compartmentalization veneer of normalcy and allow employees to navigate their grief at their own pace. Employers who recognize that the grieving process comes in waves and make that support clear to employees (and their managers) will benefit long-term from the empathy and care they show grieving employees.
Lisa Lee lost her father in 2019. She shared her experience processing her grief in a Medium story, Grief and Work. In it, she shares how being able to speak openly about her father provided comfort in the days and weeks after his death.
“Coming back to work, I noticed that talking to and being around colleagues who have met Mr. Lee or are at least familiar with my family made me feel less lonely. I’m sure it’s because their simple presence in my life confirmed that he was real—it was a temporary med to the shock of having him there one day and not the next. I knew that as hard as it would be to talk about him, ‘giving in’ to my thoughts by addressing them in a managed way actually helped me to get through each day.”
How can employees meet this moment and adjust their approaches toward grief?
New platforms like Betterleave are being created as a workplace benefit to help employees navigate everything that comes from bereavement to estate planning. These resources are helpful support for grievers, but we need to go broader and deeper to create a workplace that can help the healing process.
That includes grief counseling that extends beyond the grievers, more support for managers helping their employees as they navigate loss, and normalizing these conversations from the top on down.
Death, grief, and loss are universal. The taboo-driven isolation that accompanies our inability to discuss it doesn’t have to be.
If you’re experiencing grief, I know how isolating it can feel. Please know you’re not alone.
I recently covered the topic of living with grief in my podcast. The post below includes a range of resources, books, podcasts, and stories to support those of you grappling with grief. You can find it here.
We buried my dad on Friday. He asked to be interred in a pine box. He had long ago lost his once ardent interest in organized religion, but he remained committed right up to the end to the idea that burial helps the soul escape the body.
He endured a long sojourn in the twilight of dementia. Obituary-ese would call it a struggle or a battle, but that wasn’t John Polgreen’s style. He accepted his diagnosis with equanimity and bore it with no self-pity. He died a few days short of his 73rd birthday.
Like many families around the world, mine has seen a lot of loss in the past couple of years. It started with my paternal grandmother, Beth, who died early in the pandemic, though not of Covid, at the age of 92. She lived a long life filled with adventure, surrounded by a loving family and friends.
Next came the shocking, sudden death of my father’s younger brother Bob. He died of a heart attack last year, three months before his 70th birthday. He was building, with his own hands, as was his habit, a dream house on the shores of Lake Superior for him and my aunt to retire to and enjoy their growing passel of grandchildren. And then, just like that, he was gone.
And now it was my dad’s turn. For the first time since these deaths, my family gathered to mourn. We all missed so many celebrations during the pandemic — graduations, weddings, bar mitzvahs. But there is something especially cruel about not being able to gather in the aftermath of a loved one’s death.
Saul Bellow, one of my dad’s favorite writers, wrote in a letter to Martin Amis that “losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn’t know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you’re picking up the pieces — down to the last glassy splinter.”
So much of who I am came from my father. He grew up in a conservative white Midwestern family. He was seized early on by a curiosity about the world that would ultimately carry him across the globe, helping farmers in poor countries improve their lives. He would marry an Ethiopian woman, my mother, Rahel, and dedicate much of his life to helping the rural poor in the Global South, especially farmers, improve their lives.
When I was a kid, my father and I were close. We spent most of my childhood living in Kenya and in Ghana. He impressed upon me a love of discovery and of books. He was a white man with an African wife, raising Black American children outside of the United States, and took it as his responsibility to educate us about what life would be like when we eventually moved back. He pressed a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography into my hands as a preteenager.
But he was also a footloose dreamer, often distant or even absent. He traveled a lot when he had a job, though he went through long periods of not working. He was forever short of money: My mother’s cherished gold jewelry was in and out of pawn shops throughout my childhood. We were always struggling to stay one step ahead of an eviction notice. Not long after I graduated from college, he persuaded me to co-sign a mortgage so that he and my mom could buy a house, then proceeded to ruin my credit by being constantly late on the payments.
As so often happens in families, my parents’ bitter divorce after decades of marriage strained our relationship. I was busy with my exciting career as a foreign correspondent; he quickly remarried. We grew apart.
A few years ago, he started having little strokes. His memory had never been great, but he started forgetting things that had just happened. He grew unsteady on his feet, making the march from cane to walker to wheelchair. His wife, Pam, lovingly cared for him through it all.
We reconciled. The shortcomings that seemed so glaring when I was young suddenly faded because I could see how the story worked out. The things he failed to provide were nothing compared with what he had given me: the raw materials for a life filled with adventure, connection and meaning. A belief in the fundamental goodness of people across all kinds of difference. A commitment to trying to understand the world and make it understandable to others.
During the pandemic, my wife went back to school to train as a social worker focused on helping people with terminal illnesses. She was drawn to that work after the deaths of her parents — her mother seven years ago from cancer, her father from a heart attack in 2017.
One night over dinner I asked her about her work. What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.
She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.
“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.
There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.
Not long after my father’s passing, I learned that an old friend from college, Billy Sothern, had died by suicide. He and I had lost touch over the years, but it wasn’t hard to keep tabs on what he was up to. He was a celebrated defense lawyer in New Orleans who specialized in death penalty cases.
What always blew me away about Billy and his work was the improbable optimism of it. There are few things harder to achieve than exonerating a person sentenced to death for a crime he or she did not commit.
As we drove home from seeing his widow the other day, my wife said, “You have to be incredibly vulnerable to admit that you think the world can be better, to believe that what you do could actually make some kind of change.”
We live in a time dominated by pessimism and cynicism. These poses are a kind of armor against the vulnerability of hope. To be cynical is to close the door to the possibility of disappointment. To be pessimistic is to foreclose the risk of being made a fool by optimism.
I realize now that the most precious thing my father gave me was an example of how to live a life devoid of cynicism and pessimism. He was a dreamer and an optimist, sometimes to an absurd and even dangerous degree. But a bias toward the vulnerability of hope — that is a true gift.
As my father lay dying, I was glad I had the chance to tell him that I loved him and I was grateful. I don’t know if he could hear me, and that’s OK. As we sat together, I thought about the principles for dying and realized that they are also rules for living. A set of maps for navigating a broken world on a dying planet. Tolerate uncertainty. Normalize feelings. Minimize regret. Know that people have the capacity to change and connect, right up to the end.
If you’re familiar with the word “doula,” you likely know it in the context of birth. A doula, to most, is an individual who works alongside expectantparentsto provide support before and after the childbirth process. While midwives, doctors and nurses administer necessary health care, doulas bring compassion, empathy and emotional support to the difficult work of ushering in a new life.
But just as there are doulas whose work centres on the beginning of life, there are also doulas whose work focuses on the end.
Death doulas – also known as end-of-life doulas – are practitioners who provide care for dying individuals and their friends and family members. Like birth doulas, the work of a death doula is wide-ranging, and can encompass everything from non-medical palliative care for a patient – like bedside counselling, sharing meals and assisting in planning any final gatherings or ceremonies the patient may want to participate in – to working with the friends and family members to complete necessary paperwork and help parse funeral needs and expenses of someone who has died or is dying. Through all of this, says Jennifer Mallmes, an end-of-life educator at Douglas College in Vancouver, and co-director of the End Of Life Association of Canada, a death doula’s aim is to make death as comfortable – spiritually, emotionally and, yes, administratively – as possible.
“Broadly, an end-of-life doula is a person who empowers and educates and encourages people to be more directly involved in their end-of-life decision-making,” says Mallmes. “This support is very specific to that person’s needs, beliefs and their preferences.”
In Canada, death doulas are an unregulated profession, meaning there is no standardized certification or regulatory body. Various colleges and organizations – like Douglas – and other accredited organizations offer coursework and certification to help prospective death doulas prepare for a career in end-of-life care. And the profession is increasing in popularity: The End of Life Doula Association has seen a 6-per-cent increase in membership since spring, 2020.
While more and more doulas join the ranks of those currently working in Canada, efforts are under way to make the profession as inclusive and intersectional as possible. Douglas, for instance, recently partnered with the B.C. First Nations Health Authority to offer formal end-of-life training to Indigenous community members, many of whom have been providing end-of-life care within their communities for years. And today, a new wave of individual death doulas in Canada is working to diversify – and modernize – the profession, aiming to address the needs of communities that they say have been underserved.
Toronto-based death doula Carmen Galvan co-founded the BIPOC Death & Grief Talk, a group that holds sessions to help those struggling with loss, in 2021, after realizing that the end-of-life needs of marginalized members of her community were not being met. “For many racialized folks, mortality is not far away,” Galvansays. “A lot of death-doula work is palliative, which makes sense. But the way we work, we recognize that you could die at any moment, which is true for everyone, but I believe is much more relevant to our communities.”
Galvan’s work is more advocacy-centric, she says, than that of traditional death doulas: She may help recent immigrants overcome language barriers when preparing their will, for instance, or explain the cost of returning the body of a deceased family member to their country of birth.
Through all of this, she works to help her clients understand that preparing for your own death isn’t morbid: “It’s just a radical form of love,” Galvan says, “because what we’re doing is preventing our families from having to deal with it while they’re grieving.”
In Winnipeg, death doula Rayne Foy-Vachon’s work centres on end-of-life care for members of the LGBTQ community. And like Galvan, she acts as an advocate for her patients, even when her work is palliative: “Say I’m at the bedside of someone dying, and the health care team is not aware or comfortable, or has even been around non-traditional families,” she says. “I can help make the person who’s dying a lot more comfortable by educating these health care providers.”
Foy-Vachon, who previously worked in traditional health care, notes that LGBTQ individuals may often have specific needs in death – such as the assurance that the correct pronouns will be used in funeral proceedings or ensuring that the legal paperwork is filled out properly to name chosen family members as next of kin, when biological family members are estranged or may not respect their funerary wishes.
“I’m working with a lot of older queer people right now who have seen it all,” Foy-Vachon says. “They still have family members who don’t want anything to do with them. And for them, knowing that there’s somebody that’s going to be able to be there for them after they’re gone is just a big relief.”
For both Galvan and Foy-Vachon, death-doula work manifests as advocacy but ultimately is rooted in destigmatization and compassion. At the end of the day – or the end of a life – the goal is to make death more practical, for all those involved. “We’re answering those questions of – what’s gonna happen when I die? What will happen to me, to my family, to my friends? We empower folks within that conversation,” Galvan says. “I think a big part of death work is giving people a bit of power.”
If you are considering preparing a will, this is a great first step in planning for the future. After reflecting on the basics, such as whom you want to be in charge of administering your wishes, you may wonder if there’s anything you shouldn’t include in your will. The answer is yes. There are some things that you should avoid.
Personal Preferences or Desires
Sometimes it is best not to state personal or specific feelings in your will. To simplify the administration of your will, you should not make very specific requests or engage in discussions about your feelings.
For example, you may wish for a certain religious ceremony to be performed at your funeral or you want a celebration of life event. However, it is best not to address this in your will.
A will goes through a public and court-supervised probate process. This often occurs well after someone is laid to rest. An executor will not necessarily be able to implement these wishes after the fact.
A better option may be to provide your family with a letter of instruction containing these details. If you want your burial to be done in a certain way, you can prepurchase a burial plot and, in some areas, prepay for specific arrangements. Alternatively, you can create a fund for any event you would like, with a payable-on-death designation to someone you trust.
It is also probably best not to elaborate on personal feelings about others in your will, as this can set the tone for the administration of your estate. For example, your executor may feel some trepidation about being part of a situation where there appears to be hurt feelings or potential conflict from the outset.
If you wish to be an organ donor, you should not use your will as a place to specify this wish. In most states, there are specific ways to document your desire, such as listing it on your driver’s license. By the time your will is reviewed, it will be too late to do anything about your organ donation wishes.
Health Care or End-of-Life Decisions
Your will is not the right place to document what you would like to happen if you have suffered a substantial and irreversible loss of mental capacity or have an incurable or irreversible condition. You should do this in a living will.
You should also have a separate health care proxy that designates an agent to be able to speak with your doctors and make health care decisions on your behalf should you temporarily become unable to do so.
Be Careful About Leaving Inheritance to a Person With Special Needs
If you wish to provide for a person who has special needs upon your death, it is not a good idea to leave them an outright bequest in your will.
This may disqualify them from critical health and other benefits they need to manage their day-to-day life. It can also put them in a situation where they are forced to place your generous gift in a special needs trust that goes to the government upon their death if not used up. Instead, consider creating a first-party supplemental or special needs trust now or through your will.
Another consideration of what not to include in your will is “non-probate” property. This can encompass many things, but some of the most common examples are:
Property held in a trust — The main point of placing property in a trust is often to avoid probate. If you have property in a trust, it doesn’t need to be in your will, as there is already a plan for handling it upon your death.
Property that already has beneficiary designations — For example, including things like your 401(k), IRA, or life insurance in your will can make things unnecessarily complicated or slow things down when it comes to your beneficiaries getting the funds. The best thing to do is to confirm your beneficiary designations are up to date and in line with whom you want to receive the funds.
Property that is jointly owned with right of survivorship — This property will pass naturally to the other person upon your death. An exception is where the other person is no longer living or has given up their rights to the property in a divorce or otherwise.
The above examples are not exhaustive. There may be more items pertaining to your situation that should not be in your will. Since every estate plan is unique, it is best to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney in your area.
— More than 40 years ago, Lyn Lofland, who died last month, published a book that changed how I think about death and dying.
By: John Troyer
Lyn Lofland’s 1978 book “The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death” completely changed how I think about death and dying. As I write in the introduction to a special 40th-anniversary edition of the book published a few years ago and featured below, “The Craft of Dying” is truly a message in a bottle, one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. Sadly, Lyn died this past September after a long and impactful career. I encourage you to read her obituary, written by one of her final graduate students, Ara Francis, who also contributed an epilogue to the book.
Lyn Lofland’s “The Craft of Dying” (1978) is one of the most important books on post-WWII death and dying practices that almost no one has read. To see Lofland’s largely overlooked, but still relevant, text republished by the MIT Press is both thrilling and deeply gratifying. It is the one book that in my capacity as Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath I think every person working on contemporary death and dying issues must read. Indeed, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in understanding how events 40 years ago shaped what Lofland would call today’s “thanatological chic” read “The Craft of Dying” and note the current uncanny resemblances to the 1970s.
“The Craft of Dying” is, for me, that death, dying, and end-of-life issues book.
A common response to my adamant recommendation is — why? Why and how is this specific book any different or better than its contemporaries, e.g., “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker (to name two big death canon contenders)? My rapid answer is that Lofland’s book both documents what happened in the 1970s (the formation of new hospice spaces, activist groups encouraging people to accept death, the introduction of college courses on dying, and so on) alongside an invaluable critique of those activities. In fact, it is Lofland’s critique and classification of death-focused groups as social movements creatively constructing a new end-of-life ideology that makes “The Craft of Dying” fundamentally important. Lofland calls these end-of-life groups (similar in structure, she will note, to diffuse 1970s women’s movement and environmental movement groups) the happy death movement and uses the term to connote enthusiastic warriors taking on a challenge. Her critique is both generous and insightful at all times. But Lofland was not content with merely documenting what these death and dying groups did; she wanted to better understand what motivated their new end-of-life politics and thinking. It is her push to clearly articulate what is happening in her own moment that makes her book so valuable today; almost every argument and observation she first presented 40 years ago remains both pertinent and urgently needed now.
This book is truly a message in a bottle, and one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. That Lyn Lofland accomplished this feat in so few pages is an achievement in and of itself.
Discovering “The Craft of Dying”
For all my praise of Lofland’s work, I am embarrassed to say that I first learned of, and then read, “The Craft of Dying” in summer 2014. My mid-career discovery of Lofland occurred only after my esteemed colleague (and walking Death Studies encyclopedia) Tony Walter asked if I knew her book and the happy death movement argument. I said that no, I didn’t. Tony asked about Lofland, because he understood how “The Craft of Dying” directly related to my (then new) research project on American death and dying discourse during the 1970s.
In a nutshell, this research project examines how the 1970s functioned as a crucial but largely forgotten decade for understanding what motivates today’s death and dying groups, as well as foreshadowing many current end-of-life debates. It is during the 1970s that new death and dying tools and technologies took root, altering the definition of death: things taken for granted today, such as living wills and life-support technologies. Much of the decade’s activity is at a very local level and includes individuals forming groups that emphasize Death Acceptance, the Right-to-Die, and dying a Natural Death — all thoroughly documented in the book.
But the 1970s was also a decade when end-of-life issues extended all the way to the White House and bookended politically tumultuous times. In 1971 President Richard Nixon announced his War on Cancer, and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter formed the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical Behavioral Research, which later published its landmark 1981 report Defining Death: A Report on the Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death during the Reagan administration. Carter’s group would eventually become known as the President’s Council on Bioethics and advise all future Presidents on a wide array of issues, including, but not limited to, death and dying.
Lofland’s research remains a key historical and conceptual anchor for anyone interested in that decade, since “The Craft of Dying” analyzed and critiqued what was happening in the 1970s, during the 1970s. What any reader comes away with from this book, I think, is how death and dying were national conversations related to ongoing events — e.g., the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die case in New Jersey (which also went global) — and connected to personal freedoms — e.g., the country’s first Natural Death Act, passed in California in 1976, that gave individuals the right to legally refuse medical treatments even if the refusal meant dying.
After Tony Walter’s helpful nudge, I discovered that “The Craft of Dying” was long out of print (the republishing idea first occurred in this very moment), but I persisted in locating a copy and subsequently devoured the book in one August 2014 sitting. I say in all seriousness that reading this book fundamentally changed how I approached all research on death, dying, the dead body, end-of-life concerns, the politics of death, the historical formation of hospice spaces, current Happy Death groups pushing for what Lofland has called “death talk,” and neoliberal economic “choice” about funerals. I could go on and on. And like any convert with a newly discovered evangelical zeal I wanted nothing more than to excitedly read long sections of “The Craft of Dying” to audiences.
Coincidentally enough, captive audiences were available to me in August 2014, since I was the Scholar in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York (now sadly closed). I am not kidding when I say that almost all my public lectures during the residency involved me simply reading sections fromLyn’s book, especially the introduction:
It seems likely that eventually humans will construct for themselves a new, or at least altered, death culture and organization—a new “craft of dying”—better able to contain the new experience. I believe, as do other sociological observers … that in the ferment of activity relative to death and dying during the last two decades in the United States we have witnessed and are witnessing just such a reconstruction. Undoubtedly within this ferment, especially that emanating from the mass media, there are elements of fad and fashion—a thanatological “chic” as it were, having approximately the same level of import as organic gardening and home canning among the rich. And certainly one can never underestimate the capacity of American public discourse to transform “life and death matters” into passing enthusiasms. But there is, I believe, more to this activity than simply one more example of impermanent trendiness in modern life. Americans, especially affluent middle-class Americans, have been in the process of creating new or at least altered ways of thinking, believing, feeling, and acting about death and dying because they have been confronting a new “face of death.”
And if you are reading this now and thinking to yourself that these words eerily describe death and dying in your own historical moment (“fad and fashion” always gives me pause), then you begin to see why a book published in 1978 continues challenging everyone to examine how any decade’s happy death movements can possibly be unique, or new, or revolutionary. Lofland wants readers to understand the history of the present, so that the next generation’s death and dying activists might also comprehend the historical relationships to their own current struggle.
Relevance for Today
“The Craft of Dying” also productively intervenes in one of the 1970s’ most unhelpful and unnecessary death and dying arguments, an argument that dogmatically persists today — i.e., that death is a taboo. If the happy death movement functioned like a true social movement, Lyn Lofland reasoned, then that movement needed an enemy, and the death taboo is the perfect foil, since everybody already “knows” that it “exists.”
Lofland is neither the first author, nor will she be the last, to thoroughly challenge how and why the death taboo argument is used, abused, and greatly exaggerated. The death taboo will always be a productive fiction for various happy death movement groups committed to ideologically transforming the “face of death” in America and the West, but it is a fiction all the same. As she rightly points out in part III, the death taboo argument serves a useful function that is especially popular with death-movement intellectuals (full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of said group). Her critique of death-movement intellectuals is reason enough to appreciate how farsighted this text remains today. Lofland’s crucial intervention begins:
It has been variously formulated, but essentially the view holds that America is a death-denying society, that death is a taboo topic, that death makes Americans uncomfortable so they run from it, that death is hidden in America because Americans deny it, and so forth. The consequences of all this denial and repression are asserted to be quite terrible: exorbitant funeral costs and barbaric funeral practices, inhumane handling of dying in hospitals, ostracism of the dying from the living, inauthentic communication with the fatally ill, an unrealistic, mechanical, non-organic view of life, and so forth. … As many scholars have pointed out, the empirical evidence for all these assertions is something less than overwhelming (see, for example, Dumont and Foss, 1972; Donaldson, 1972). And one might consider it somewhat odd that the statement that death is a taboo topic in America should continue to be asserted in the face of nearly a decade of non-stop talking on the subject. But if one appreciates the functions these statements serve in enemy evocation, one can also appreciate that their questionable empirical basis is hardly a serious obstacle to endless repetition. The importance of the “conventional view of death”—of the conventional wisdom about death—as propounded over and over again by movement intellectuals, is not its “truth” but its utility.
If making more people rigorously question whether or not they really need the death taboo fiction to advance their own death and dying arguments is the only thing republishing “The Craft of Dying” accomplishes, then all the waiting was worth it. Seeing the taboo argument finally debunked would also recognize Lofland’s scholarly commitment to status quo challenging scholarship both then and now. That said, I have a strong hunch that in the decades to come many death-movement intellectuals and practitioners will still make the death taboo argument to advance both their careers and book sales — a point not lost on Lofland when she states that the death taboo is always about utility, not truth.
Above and beyond the book’s uncanny timeliness (e.g., when reading the preface, replace all the originally listed years with the current year and note the similarities) Lofland taps into another core human experience: we Homo sapiens persist at dying. The fact that we all eventually die becomes that rare universal constant that allows each human the opportunity, should we take it, to experience and think about death and dying in new ways. Part II, Individual Constructions: Styling and Controlling the Dying Role, in particular, focuses on how the dying person becomes something different during the 1970s.
I found myself directly confronting Lofland’s newly articulated experience of death and dying, as discussed in part II, when my younger sister, Julie Troyer, died from terminal brain cancer on July 29, 2018. Watching my sister die made me reflect quite heavily on the book’s key assertions, and in very unexpected ways that accidentally (albeit sadly) coincided with writing this introduction. The MIT Press expressed interest in republishing “The Craft of Dying” while my sister was dying, but I started writing the introduction after she was dead — an interval of approximately one month. My father, Ron Troyer, a long-time grief and bereavement support-group facilitator and retired American Funeral Director, best summed up my death interval experience in very Loflandian language: it is one thing to publicly say, “Julie is dying,” it’s an entirely different experience to state, “Julie is dead.” The former felt active, the latter inert.
I chose to add this section about my recent experience with death and dying, as Lofland rigorously analyzes the role of language and expressivity in encouraging people to discuss precisely these issues. For many days I wondered aloud if it was appropriate for a death studies academic, such as myself, to write a new introduction for “The Craft of Dying” that includes a discussion of such a personal experience. After staring at this book for what seemed like eons, I fully realized the genius of Lyn Lofland’s irreplaceable contribution to contemporary death and dying discourse: that, no matter what any of us do; no matter our personal, professional, or familial relationship with death, everyone still dies. And that Lofland’s always-new-craft-of-dying requires we living humans to critically reflect on these confrontations with mortality in our own meaningful ways, so that we might glimpse, for a moment, what living and dying can become in our technologically advanced 21st century. It is vitally important, I think Lofland would say, to see our personal mortal ends in the modern face of death.
What, Then, for the Future of “The Craft of Dying”?
I see no reason why this book will not remain relevant for another forty years. In surveying how Lyn Lofland’s central arguments evolved over time, connections clearly emerge with the ACT-UP AIDS protests of the 1980s and 1990s, and the contemporary activism of today’s Black Lives Matter groups. Lofland rightly predicts that death and dying social movements will persist at emerging and folding back into each other, precisely because death refuses to phenomenologically disappear. The complexity of what she wrote has never dissipated and will continue to find new audiences for many years to come. Part I, The Situation of Modern Dying: Problems and Potentials, sums up via the chapter title itself what each generation will assuredly confront.
“The Craft of Dying” does come with a cautionary note, however, and it is a point that bears mentioning in the conclusion to this new introduction.
Happy death movement groups (then and now) always run the risk of alienating the very people they so eagerly want to help through non-stop ultra-upbeat expressive death talking that then demands transforming and accepting death/dying/mortality at all costs. The challenge here involves individuals becoming convinced that they are doing death wrong, and in that moment of doubt, Lofland wryly suggests, a “dismal death” movement might emerge:
If expressivity comes to be widely accepted as the only way to achieve a decent death, the emotionally reticent will find themselves under great pressure to “share.” If the idea that death and dying provide new opportunities for self-improvement becomes common currency, the chronic under achiever will find himself facing one more opportunity for failure. Not “getting off” on death may become as déclassé as sexual unresponsiveness. Then perhaps, a “dismal death” movement will rise to wipe the smile from the face of death and restore the “Grim Reaper” to his historic place of honor.
This book will remain relevant for all these specific cautionary reasons, and many more. I hope that in another four decades “The Craft of Dying” is republished for that historical moment’s own happy death movements; especially the ones that still evoke the death taboo enemy in order to evangelize a getting-off-on-death gospel. The irony, of course, is that Lyn Lofland showed us all how easy it is to talk about death and dying without ever transgressing any taboos, and she did this forty years ago in the book that you are about to read.
On further reflection it becomes clear that most happy death movements just can’t help themselves when it comes to constantly talking about this taboo that isn’t actually true. Why? It makes them feel useful. Lyn Lofland would likely say that’s okay.