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  • Writer's pictureDouglas Mackaman

Out of a Great Silence: Why Talking about Death Matters

Updated: May 2, 2021

More than almost anything else we know, we know we will die. And so will everyone we love. Covid has made death a daily count, tragic and seeming never to end. Heartbreak in Italy moved to New York. And then everywhere. Now India. As my middle son said when we knew his big brother would die of meningitis eight years ago in April: "people either know what this feels like or they will." It's mostly true.

Meanwhile we live with platitudes all around about needing to seize the day and check things off our bucket list. And of course YOLO. And yet as our society drifts further away from the face-to-face engagement that generations before took for granted, we have fewer real moments to check in on each other to see what death is doing in our lives.

The terrible months of the pandemic have likely been an aberration when it comes to the place of death in our collective conversation. That's too bad. Because normally until it's your turn in the bereavement barrel, you don't notice how little death comes up in life. It's just a great silence. Unconsidered, unintended. When you've been crushed by bereavement, the topic of death is the only thing that feels honest or safe to discuss. Because when you don't talk about it, you're being untruthful. There is nothing but anguish and dread in your heart. And your guts have a way of feeling sick that's entirely new. There isn't anything but the death. It stays that way for many weeks and months. Permeating dreams, wrecking sleep, ravaging diet and fitness. Foggy thinking, clouded cognition, hopelessness, despair. You aren't who you were. You won't be again.

If it was a child you lost as I did, it's going to stay hard forever. Which is also why the silence around death is so frustrating. You're left to wonder how powerful life could be if death were given its due. Talking about it creates an emotional opening that life needs, or at least EQ-forward life does.

If we can "go there" in a conversation, we find key things that make relationships deepen and feel like the miracles they are. Talking about death lets us talk about fear. About things we failed to notice or weren't grateful for in our past. Or relationships that went fallow because of our actions or inactions.

Death-talk can also be an invitation to the physicality and community our souls and bodies need. When we cry because death took our loved one away, we pound a stake in the ground of total vulnerability. If people can't care to hold space for us when death spared their house but not ours, we see something entirely true in a flash. We see that death has given us power.

The power not to be afraid. The power to care deeply for people, even people we don't know. The power to say without guilt what we need, now. And for all the days we walk forward with death, the knowledge of what the worst in life really feels like. From that hard backstop comes simple, total courage. Ask any parent who has had a child die what they still fear? That their other children might die, of course. Otherwise, nothing.

I don't like April. Henry died on the 10th, in 2013. We knew it was over when the chaplain met us at the hospital door. Even in a crowded lobby, it's easy to spot a family freshly forced inside the liminality of death's dominion. Then the days clocked by, dark, hard. The weeks. Now? Eight years on.

So I celebrate that May is here. And that for me, having death around is part of the job. I connect with friends and colleagues on a deeper and more caring level, because there are true things to care about and say. I travel better with people who can agree that what's hardest in life can also become a springboard to the sharing, empathy and community that make people transition from fractured to whole.

Your first child teaches you to be a parent. Henry taught me that and so much more. Then his death taught me that all around us are hearts breaking twice. Once because death came. Then because the silence did,

We think about them all the time don't we? Let's just say that and see what happens to the world.

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