Bereavement and death: the last taboo?

Benjamin Franklin (1789) is reputed to have said that the only things certain in this world are death and taxes, however, bereavement and death remain elusive, if not taboo, subjects of conversation. Arguably in the 21st century within the United Kingdom (U.K.), against a backdrop of rising  mental health difficulties, adults aim to shelter children and young people  from topics that might cause stress, anxiety, or upset in a process that Pilcher (1995) calls ‘separateness’, a differentiation between childhood and adulthood. Thus, death is not talked about in a proactive manner but dealt with as a reactive response. Frequently, when a young person experiences loss, the first source approached is the internet.

Whilst the internet is an easy tool to utilise, it is also laden with outdated material which could be potentially counterproductive and even harmful to the young person’s grief process. Moreover, most bereavement support models tend to be adult directed interventions that are ‘top down’, and which contravene article 12 of the rights of the child enshrined in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (1989), which advocates that children have the right to express opinions about matters which affect them. 

Bereavement affects all areas of a young person’s life and can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. However, the quality of support available to them is dependent on the skillset, and value placed by, the person the information is shared with because bereavement policies and procedures are not in place. Generally, there tends to be emotional literacy sessions which teach responsibility for correcting inappropriate behaviour rather than programmes which allow exploration and understanding of all emotions, including grief.

Grieving needs to be acknowledged as a process that is a natural response to death. So how do professionals working with children and young people move beyond this taboo and build a compassionate environment that allows for natural responses to death, that of grief and mourning, to take place without being pathologized? Open dialogue about death and bereavement would break down some of the stigma, however as Bochner (2000) notes that “personal narratives are demeaned as some sort of victim art or confessional” (p. 271).

Being ‘allowed’ and given space to talk about grief and personal stories of loss can be utilised as a powerful mechanism for sensemaking, development of voice and to a certain extent, ownership of the process of grief, a point echoed by Giorgio (2009), who stresses that retelling the story enables some sense of order onto “the mess of trauma; we regain control over our lives by acknowledging and sharing with others our own truths” (p. 157).  Opening up dialogue on death allows for it to be taken out of the realms of taboo subject and to be thought of as a normal occurrence that is part of the life cycle of humans which in turn will lead to a clearer path to support for both individuals and professionals.

Blog post written by Dr Sukh Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in Childhood within the School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC), University of Portsmouth.

References

Bochner, A., P. (2000).  ‘Criteria against Ourselves’. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), pp. 266-272

Giorgio, G. (2009).  ‘Traumatic Truths and the Gift of Telling’. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(1) pp.149-167

Pilcher, J. (1995). ‘Growing Up and Growing Older: The Sociology of Age.’ Sociology Review 5. pp 8-13.

UNHCR. ‘The Rights of the Child.’ (1989). Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org.uk/UNICEFs-Work/UN-Convention/