I was listening to the Today programme on Saturday morning – Best of Today – Good Grief Guest Edit – BBC Sounds and the guest editors were three friends who had met at university and had all lost someone close to them. They were championing open dialogue about grief and highlighted how positives can be derived from grief. It is often a life-changing event, which can alter people’s perspectives, sometimes bringing about positive changes to the way we live our lives. But there is still a stigma about death in many sectors of our society and unless this is challenged I don’t think we will ever be able to truly and openly embrace grief.
I was interested to hear during the programme that in Sweden they have no equivalent to our phrase ‘it will get easier’. When a Swedish person was asked what Swedish people typically say to someone grieving, she said they had some old saying that was so archaic that no one really uses it anymore and as a result people just say nothing! So we’re not the worst as a nation, but we still have a long way to go.
Whilst on holiday in Madagascar our guide, Lala, asked if we knew about Famadihana, a sacred ritual of exhumation practiced by his tribe in the central highlands. I had read about it but hadn’t dared ask him as I feared it might be disrespectful. Lala proceeded to tell us how every five-to-seven years families exhume the remains of their relatives. They collect money from family, friends, and even neighbours and have a huge celebratory feast in the company of their ancestors. The ceremony is cheerful with singing, dancing, and a lot of drinking! They carry the corpses on their shoulders and literally ‘dance with the dead’. This is their way of remembering the dead, of keeping loved ones’ memories alive. I must admit I was fascinated by it, while my husband found it rather gruesome, but to the Merina Tribe it is an ancient ritual to be celebrated, that defies any discomfort with death.
I was recounting this story to a Japanese friend at a barbecue who said that back in Japan her family would keep a relic of a recently deceased relative, for example, a piece of bone, on a shelf in a prominent spot in the house. They would light a candle alongside and regularly place a bowl of food in front of it. It was their way of looking after their loved ones and including them in their lives after they had departed.
Both these rituals help the families to remember their loved ones and presumably also help them to grieve. While I am not suggesting we should start exhuming our deceased relatives in the UK, we could certainly do a lot more to make people feel more comfortable talking about grief. The traditional “stiff upper lip” has its merits, but it can also be quite damaging and isolating.
Since we launched our Difficult Conversations campaign, I have noticed an increase in coverage in the British media about grief. I have also become aware of specific grief charities, death cafes and death doulas in the UK, all of which, I had no idea existed before we started the campaign.
I hope that these are all signs that we are starting to break down some of the barriers, that soon, grief will no longer be taboo and that the increased media coverage will facilitate a shift in how we approach and understand death and grief.