The month of November is full of days to remember. All Saints Day on November first, Day of the Dead from the first to the second, Remembrance Day on the eleventh, and Trans Day of Remembrance on November twentieth. These days prompt us to slow down and honour those who have come before us; therefore, in my blog this month, I want to take some time to talk about death, how we remember and getting comfortable with death and grief.
Last week, I saw Shang-Chi, a superhero movie based on an Asian man living in modern-day America. At the start of the film, the grandmother character comments on missing her deceased husband, to which her kids respond, “He has been gone for so long, he would want you to move on.” The grandmother replies, “Moving on is such an American concept.” I’m sure the real Marvel fans in the crowd did not pay too much attention to this line, as it had little to do with the heroic plot of the film, yet this line stood out to me as I prepared for a blog about remembrance and getting comfortable with death and grief.
November prompts us to remember; however, we do not do a great job honouring our dead or talking about death itself in colonized north-western culture. This phenomenon is interesting as death is one of the most contemporary and universal experiences amongst humanity. Every person in the world will die and experience the death of someone they know/love, yet we rarely talk about it. It is not hard to explain why we don’t like talking about death. It’s sad, vulnerable, and easier just to ignore, but we all have thoughts, feelings, fears and experiences surrounding death, so is it helpful to keep them to ourselves?
As a health care professional, death is part of my job; I am constantly dealing with the death of patients and holding professional yet human grief. I first experienced patient death when I worked as a Recreation Therapy Intern at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre. When a veteran died, they were honoured with a Flag Ceremony. A flag was placed over their body, and they were marched down the halls, allowing residents and staff to honour the deceased. This was a powerful experience for 19-year-old Amy as I processed my first patient deaths and saw many dead bodies and was one of my first steps in getting more comfortable with death and grief. There was something so powerful about the bodies exiting their last earthly home with pride and dignity. It was my first lesson in death being a natural part of human life where grief and celebration can stand hand-in-hand.
Last month at work, I attended a Death Cafe, which is simply a conversation about death. These cafes have been happening globally for decades. They have limited structure and offer a safe space for participants to talk about death, which I found wonderfully healing. As participants at my cafe open up about death, it becomes apparent that our experiences and opinions share many commonalities. We all had thought about where we go when we die, how we will die when we will die and fear the death of our loved ones. We all are affected by death, and as a true Willowjak writer, I believe that sharing these authentic and vulnerable parts of ourselves can bring healing and strength.
In northwestern, colonized culture, our fear of death hinders our ability to remember and celebrate lives that have ended. Often life is honoured with a funeral, then loved ones of the deceased are encouraged toward the “healthy” step of “moving on.” We push aside grief and memories to get back to the life of the living. In some stages of grief, “moving on” can be vital as we can’t sit in sadness forever, yet I think the healthiest place to reach is where the lives of loved ones we have lost continue through memories and celebration.
In Mexican culture, it is believed that you die twice, once when you physically die and again when you stop being remembered; therefore, celebrating loved ones who have passed away is an essential part of life. Day of the Dead, which happens every year from November first to second, is a sacred time in Mexico where people remember and honour the lives of their loved ones. They build beautiful altars filled with family pictures, flowers and the deceased’s favourite treats. This time is seen as a joyful celebration of remembrance.
As I reflect on my own relationship with death, I have some room for growth; however, my work and being raised by a mother who took us to every relevant funeral because “you will only regret the ones you miss” has helped me achieve some comfortability with this uncomfortable topic. I think of my Grandma McClelland, effortlessly being open about death at the end stage of her cancer because she had no fear of the end. I think of her legacy every time the McClelland family is gathered around her favourite cocktail hour treats, laughing as we share stories of Grandma’s life and lessons. There is joy in the same breath as death in these moments, and there is life within death as Grandma lives on through her memory and loved ones left behind.
So today, as the news is endlessly filled with COVID-19 death toll numbers, it can be easy to desensitize yourself from death and grief, but I challenge you to talk about death with someone you love. Explore your fears, beliefs and wishes to connect over the most universal and vulnerable of human experiences. By doing this, hopefully you will start getting comfortable with death and grief.
We all live, and we all die. It’s not a secret; therefore, the more we can understand what death means, the more comfortable we get with honouring and remembering those who have passed. Find ways to keep your loved ones alive as you share their stories, make their favourite recipe or wear their heirloom necklace. It is okay to be sad and hide from grief for a while, but I encourage you to find new life in the celebration of the lives that made you because we all deserve to be remembered.
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Amy is a fresh grad with a degree in Therapeutic Recreation. University does not come naturally to a person with a learning disability, making Amy uniquely proud of her undergraduate accomplishments. Amy is working to be more open about her disability and strives to view her learning challenges as an opportunity for growth in resilience and creativity.
She has worked with rehab patients, people with disabilities, veterans and mental health clients searching for more equitable access to community recreation. She believes wholeheartedly in the therapeutic benefit of doing what you love, as often as you can.