Today, someone is dying. They’re lying in a hospital bed, or in their home. Perhaps they did not even know that when they woke up this morning it would be for the last time. Death may be the only true equalizer, the final frontier — it is the only certainty we have. Not when it will happen, and not what comes after, but we know that for all of us, there will eventually be a day we will not see the end of.
And yet, fear of death is one of the common phobias in the world. We stumble over our words when we talk about something so monumental, something so terrifying, something taboo. We know it will happen, and we spend our lives outrunning it for as long as we can because that is what we are biologically programmed to do. But what is perhaps the only shared experience we truly have is the one thing we never quite know how to talk about. When a friend or a loved one loses someone close to them, we go silent. Grief has become a quiet affair. We try to keep their minds off of it, and we clam up when they start to reminisce — unsure of what our role in those conversations should be.
In this way, grief is isolating. When I lost my mother a few years ago, it was a process I underwent largely on my own. It is something that is difficult to discuss even with those grieving alongside you, and it felt that returning to the status quo was both necessary and impossible. People who care about you will still be uncertain of how to tread the unsteady waters, usually choosing ultimately to avoid the topic altogether. But if death is the reality that all of us will ultimately face, why is it that when someone we love is grieving, we can never really look them in the eye?
In these uncertain times, death is changing. In America, over 20,000 people have died of the coronavirus at the time of writing, and projections are showing that the number may rise to 60,000 by the time the pandemic is over. People are dying in isolation with no hand to hold, and funerals are considered health hazards. States are setting up “mobile morgues,” and it seems like when the smoke clears, no one will be left unscathed. When we think about returning to campus, it’s with a grin — many of us can’t wait for that first weekend back, or how tightly we’ll hold our friends during our long-awaited reunion. But when we come back, many of us will have lost someone important to us, or someone important to us will have lost someone important to them. It is more important now than ever to learn to talk about death, loss and grieving.
We have to make it acceptable to be angry, to be heartbroken and to be lonely. We have to normalize discussions of those we have lost — whether the discussions are painful or loving or both. We have to talk about the healing process and make it known that it is a long, gruesome journey, not a two-week recovery followed by a return to maximum productivity. We have to talk about how right now Black and Latinx populations are currently dying at twice the rate of white ones, how more poor people are dying than rich and how even if death may be our universal truth, we cannot say it doesn’t have its favorites.
For years to come, our world will never forget how intimate we became with the dreaded fate awaiting all of us. We will not forget the improper goodbyes, or the statistics that rise exponentially every day. There is a collective healing process that will come with time, but only if we normalize these discussions. We can still respect the magnanimity of death if we make it the topic of our conversations. Not the heavy ones that feel more like penance, but the healthy ones we should have with our friends and family. We can still acknowledge death as something terrible — no matter what you believe comes after — and simultaneously acknowledge it as truth. When we talk about death, we also talk about life, and I think that is something every person we lose deserves.
DEREEN SHIRNEKHI is a first year in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org