OPINION: Why we should normalize death

Topic of death should be open, continual conversation to have throughout life



Something as simple as having a goldfish, or any pet, could begin the conversation of death and grieving.


Due to recent circumstances, there has been more death than usual. It has left a lot of people to grieve loved ones, either because of the pandemic itself or other causes. I, too, have recently had a family member die. 

Even without that, I always thought funeral rituals around the world were interesting. I once wrote a paper that discussed how Viking funeral rituals could be used to chronicle religious changes over time because of their burial goods. 

So, when I read a Daily Evergreen article about Human Development 360, a course on death and dying, I was intrigued.

Cory Bolkan, associate professor of human development, has taught Human Development 360 for over twelve years. Bolkan said we should start conversations about death and dying early. It is not just one conversation, rather continued conversations throughout life.

I know this idea drew my attention. I cannot say with certainty that my mother did or did not sit me down to talk about death as a child, but as far as I can remember, I think I understood it. But talking to children about death seems like a daunting concept to me. Granted, children, in general, seem daunting. 

“Even as adults, we still revisit our relationship with death, loss and grief,” Bolkan said. “The earlier we start modeling that and having conversations with kids, we are preparing them to be able to face loss and challenges that will inevitably come.”

Bolkan said death is part of being human and these conversations should be normalized. She said most children know from a young age that death is a changed state and grasp the general concept. 

It makes sense. Children can be pretty perceptive. Sometimes trying to avoid certain subjects just makes it harder for children to understand and deal with those subjects later.

By thinking about what is developmentally appropriate for an age group, Bolkan said meaningful conversations about death can be held even with preschoolers, even in small ways like after seeing a dead worm on the sidewalk. 

The first step is to consider our relationship with death. In order to communicate effectively with children, Bolkan said we need to reflect on our own relationship with death even if it is difficult. 

She said we live in a very death-denying society, which I agree with wholeheartedly. It is not something most people want to talk about. Some people believe in an afterlife, some are afraid of not knowing what comes next, but it is safe to say that, generally, most people do not want to die or think about dying. 

After all, people seem to like to be in control. There are limited ways to control death, none of them something I could encourage. We just have to learn to manage it. 

Daniel Hayward, senior philosophy and pre-law major, said that all civilizations handle death and dying differently. He is unsure if there is a particular way we as people should handle it.

Given the fact we are currently surrounded by death as a result of the pandemic and there is a lot of fear-mongering, Hayward said he would personally like to see people move away from the topic of death and focus on the celebration of life. 

“Death is a very important part of life, no matter what religion or philosophy you subscribe you to,” Hayward said. “In my opinion, the best way to get through it is to celebrate the life that was lived rather than mourn the loss.” 

Bolkan said something similar; no matter someone’s spiritual or religious beliefs, death is universal. Understanding different ways cultures deal with death can help us better understand it, better prepare for it and better cope with it. 

As a result of this, Hayward said he does think children should be introduced to the concept of death relatively early on. 

“I know a lot of families have got goldfish and they have to have a sit-down talk and discuss what happened to the goldfish, or the family dog or something like that,” Hayward said. 

Those moments are great teaching moments. Hayward said he thinks caring for animals is one great way to prime children, young adults and even adults. 

Life, death, birth — all of these things are natural and Hayward said we should not repress the topics. I think it is silly that we shy away from conversations about natural things. Sure, there is a time and a place for certain subjects, but if something is just a fact of life, then there is no use hiding from it. 

Bolkan said the way we treat death now leaves us unprepared to deal with death, grieving people and our own grief. By not talking about death with children, Bolkan said we perpetuate this cycle. By normalizing the conversation early on, rather than beating around the bush, we may find death less scary.

Bolkan said that saying things like “we lost Grandma,” or “we’re putting the dog to sleep” can be confusing for children, This can leave them wondering why we are not looking for grandma or how scary it would be to associate death with sleep.

I never thought about that before, but I suppose it would make sense for a child not to want to go to sleep if they think it is the same as what happens when you euthanize a pet. If we become a more death-positive society and talk about it more openly, Bolkan said it can be a little less scary. 

Bolkan said not everyone goes through all five of the five stages of grief that people tend to experience. But even if they do, it may not be in a certain order. Bolkan’s point that there is no way to simply turn grief on and off makes me think it is even more important that we learn to understand it better. 

By taking a course like Human Development 360 or doing some reading on our own, I think we can change things one step at a time. Bolkan said Caitlin Doughty may be a good place to start investigating. If we start with us, then maybe the next generations will become increasingly more comfortable.