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How the Culture of Repression Keeps Death A Secret

Updated: May 13, 2021

I have often inadvertently pissed people off by speaking openly and honestly, violating the constraints and strictures of the majority culture of the USA, aka White Anglo Saxon Protestant decorum.

My Jewish-styled directness is shared by many other people of my ancestry so I am not alone, but it doesn’t feel that way. I may be extreme in my rebellion against the repressive structures that lead to so many stupid, inane, absurd misunderstandings - even wars- between friends, families, nations.

I am amazed by how the culture of silence has caused such irreparable harm. I think of the woman who told me that she ‘lost’ her mother as a child. No one in her family- her father, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, ever spoke of her mother again. It was as if she never existed. It took this kind, gentle woman four decades to actually cry over the loss of her mother and find her powerful anger about how her mother’s memory had been so cruelly denied.

I find this common story stunning. I think about the millions of people around the globe who have had a similar experience. Why? The deafening silence around embracing death and remembering the deceased is a blanket holding fear, denial, tradition, custom and emotional repression.

But so many people who have lost loved ones are filled with the gift of time. Death often is slow in coming after a prolonged illness or decline, affording us the chance to connect and share so much love. Afterwards, those who are left behind experience loss veined with that experience of a good death. They freely and sweetly share stories about their husband’s silly jokes and annual treks to see the wildflowers bloom. They got to say goodbye over and over again, so grateful for the peacefulness of their sister’s passing.

In this country, about 50 of each 100,000 deaths are sudden. That means at least 900,000 of each 1,000,000 deaths have the gift of time. Time to say goodbye, to prepare for greeting death, to implement last wishes.

Creating a death positive culture, where it is the norm to contemplate and plan for our deaths, fits me like a glove. Holding this space, I can be my true self, and speak authentically. I can stand quietly and speak openly and gently. I can listen deeply and be of service.

There is a maxim that may or may not be true, but is certainly provocative: ‘how we live is how we die’. People long to leave a legacy, to be remembered for their true selves, and to leave things finished for and with their loved ones. They want to state their final wishes on how and where they want to die. They want to say “I am sorry” and “Please forgive me” and “Thank you” and “I love you”.

Don’t you think it would be tragic to die without any of your peeps knowing your final wishes about the type of death you wanted? Would they choose to live if they were hooked up to a machine? Who do you want bedside at your death? What do you want to be remembered for? Living with regret for what was left unsaid adds mountains of complications to grief.

If we took away the tired old repressive rules to not speak too directly, to not be too much yourself unless you comport with the status quo, to not express your emotions lest you appear unseemly, imagine it being completely normal to sit around the dinner table every once in a while to share about your wishes and your thoughts about death ( (

I love being part of a world devoted to serving people at an extraordinary time in their lives with full permission to talk gently about hard things. I love the deep listening that is part of the gift of being present in the sacred space of nearing death. Removing the verbal repression allows me to be fully open-hearted. I can finally be myself.

I have had many people die in my life; a dear friend was murdered; grandparents, aunts, uncles faded; my father was so weak he died on the crapper; my sister died of metastasized breast cancer to her brain; my hospice patients die.

My mother greeted death, reaching her arms out to the light and let herself be cradled by death’s welcoming arms. She and I got to say goodbye and share our love for months. All her paperwork and personal belongings and funereal plans were completed long before. She drifted off peacefully after a ten day death journey, 5 years and 2 hours after her eldest daughter had died.

She gave me an incredible gift by preparing her body and mind so thoroughly. I simply circumvented the heavy load of grief. I was in a high place of love and light. I was able to just honor her and love her. Her memorial was a beautiful gathering of honoring her goodness and filled me with affirming joy. Someone once told me that grief is just another word for pure love. I totally get it.

What if we opened up to talking about death so we could open up to life more? What if we died as we lived, open and honest and unafraid to say what wants to be said?

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