In American society, one of the strongest taboos is against death. Death is viewed as a sensitive and uncomfortable subject that many individuals choose to avoid due to the negative connotation associated with it. Due to this, death is not something discussed openly in public, therefore, there has recently been an outburst in what is known as death cafes. These death cafes are exactly what they sound like; cafes dedicated to the topic of death.
Originally starting in Europe, death cafes have spread to America in the past several years. They provide a comfortable setting where people who have lost someone can openly grieve with others and relate with one another. The people who go to these cafes come from various backgrounds, varying from a widow to a hospice nurse. One of the interviewees from the article is a pastor and what really struck me as surprising is how he views death as a “great intimacy than sex.” Because death is viewed as such a private matter, many individuals do not get the support they need when someone they love dies. Friends and family members only give the person a certain time period to mourn for their loss and then grieve in silence. Thus, these death cafes provide a place of relief and complete openness where no emotions or thoughts have to be censored.
The need to create these death cafes demonstrates how uneasy death makes society feel— to the point where death cafes to serve as a safe place where people who have dealt with death can cope and feel free to express themselves. I thought this really tied in to what we have talked about in class before of how in many cultures dealing with death is a very private affair or mourners are given a certain time frame where they are allowed to grieve and afterwards they can no longer grieve in public. This mentality shows why the creation of death cafes has become so popular and also shows how sad it is that in order to talk about death freely, it must be in a secluded area away from the majority of society. This shows that we have a long way to go on our approach towards death and the taboo that surrounds it.
The older we get, the more we have to face the fact that death is creeping closer and closer. In general, a good death in the United States is one that involves old age, minimal suffering, and at least some expectation. We know that death is inevitable, and the longer a person lives, the more it seems they’ve had a “full” life. This makes the occurrence of death easier to swallow. When death suddenly pounces upon the unsuspecting victim, sinking its teeth into youth, our society is unprepared. We are taken aback, thrown off balance, and left in a state of shock. If this kind of death is mixed with injustice, it makes for a powerful combination of circumstances. My former classmate, 16 year old Christina Lembo, embodies this image of a very “bad death”.
Christina Lembo, a junior this year at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, NJ, was tragically seized from life on Saturday, September 29th. Though I did not personally know her, I know several people who did. She is described as an athletic student who was “smart,” “talented,” and “so sweet and loving and kind.” She was young, healthy, and full of life with a promising future. According to our culture, this shocking end to her life was not supposed to happen yet, and not like this. It was too unexpected. What makes matters worse is that it was completely out of her control. A car suspected of drag racing abruptly crashed into the car in which she was a passenger. Someone else’s mindless decision cost a vibrant young woman everything.
In instances like this it is not enough to study grief and death rituals from a purely anthropological academic viewpoint. An anthropological viewpoint, however, helps one understand and recognize how the healing process can begin. Culturally accepted rituals that tell us how to handle a situation like this give us guidance in how to grieve. They tell us what is acceptable to do and/or say, and therefore give us the freedom to begin healing. The biggest example of this can be seen in the vigil held for Christina on Broughton Ave, the street where the accident occurred. The vigil is a ritualistic way for the community to come together and publicly mourn over this beautiful young student. It is a way in which support is created to all who are in need. This vigil is also a way of showing that, though Christina is physically dead, she is not socially dead. I have a feeling that, due to the nature of this tragedy, Christina will remain socially alive for a very long time.
More information about Christina Lembo can be found here.
I know we haven’t touched upon this topic in class yet but the concept of grief interests me simply because it’s different for every person. Some people like to openly discuss feelings and memories while others tend to remain quiet and keep their emotions to themselves. Grief also differs depending on how the person died. Were they ill for years or were they a victim of a tragically fatal car accident? When a loved one dies, one focuses mainly on either their own grief or the grief of their family. However, what about the doctor that cared for your ill grandparent? How do you think he feels? The grief doctors experience usually goes unnoticed but these doctors have spent long hours slaving away at curing the patient and have gotten to build a personal relationship with them and their families so it’s only fair that they have a right to grieve their patient’s death as well.
I found this article “When Doctors Grieve” that was published in the New York Times last May very interesting because it is a topic that isn’t discussed often and because I am an aspiring doctor. A study was done on twenty oncologists concerning grief practices when one of their patients died. Over half of them reported feelings of “self doubt, sadness, and powerlessness”. Many added that they felt guilty and would often cry and lose sleep. However, most of these oncologists fought to hide their emotions because it is seen as a sign of weakness as a medical professional. Surprisingly, the death of a patient oftentimes effects the behavior of the doctor and the treatment practices they perform on the patient. One doctor stated “I see an inability sometimes to stop treatment when treatment should be stopped.” This results in more aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Another aspect of this article which was of most interest to me was the idea that as a patient gets closer to dying, the doctor tends to distance themselves from the patient and their families resulting in an overall less effort toward the patient. I think this is because the doctor does not want to become too attached with the patient and develop a relationship with them because when they die, the doctor becomes affected by this both emotionally and professionally. The author of the article believes that doctors should be trained to handle their own grief and I agree. A great doctor is one that can compose themselves and carry on with their life while coping with the loss of their patient.
The article can be found here: (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/opinion/sunday/when-doctors-grieve.html)