For much of our American history, it was not uncommon for a family to lose a child. Disease, childbirth, war, and lack of hospitals made it unusual for a household *not* to have been touched by death in some way.
Despite the frequency of death, or perhaps because of it, grief was not discussed in those days. Grief was expressed in the appropriate times and places, such as at a funeral, but it was not discussed. Our American ancestors were never urged to go to group therapy to revisit their loss… over, and over, and over.
Then, there were two important changes in our country’s history. First, the medical world made significant advances: hospitals became more accessible and more sanitary, vaccines were discovered and distributed, and diseases became more curable — resulting in fewer deaths. Second, death became a topic of interest among philosophers and psychologists, who suggested that death had become an “unnatural taboo” which caused repression of emotion that would surely cause damage to one’s mental health.
On one end of the pendulum swing, in 1911, an article called “Facing Death” in Harpers Bazaar said, “Grief is self-pity. Perhaps if we were less centered upon our own happiness, grief over the loss of our beloved ones would not be the terrible thing that it is.” On the other end of the pendulum swing, the 1960s and 1970s brought about an emphasis on self-expression, talk therapy, and the overwhelming influence of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s book On Death and Dying* published in 1969. By the late 1990s, it had become a widespread belief that people must “give voice” to their grief, or else it would fester. And now we do get urged to go to group therapy to revisit our loss… over, and over, and over.
In other words, death went from being a frequent occurrence with an expectation of limited outward expression, to being an infrequent occurrence with an expectation of significant outward expression.
Here’s why our culture’s history of death is of interest to me: I believe we must let the pendulum fall closer to the middle. I want us to all be thankful that the death of a child is so uncommon… but I want us to remember that it is not unheard of. I want us to respect those who choose to express their grief outwardly… but not judge or “worry about” those who don’t. I want us to remember that life is a gift… but also remember that death is part of the same cycle. I want us to honor the loved ones we have lost… but not lose ourselves in the process.
It’s time for a new chapter in our American history of death. In this chapter, we don’t expect people to die, and we don’t expect people not to die. We don’t judge people for expressing themselves, and we don’t judge people for not expressing themselves. We mourn the ones we have lost, and we celebrate that we had them in the first place. We remember the loved ones who have died, but we never forget that we are still alive… and we have a lot of living left to do.