Let’s Talk About Death and Social Justice

Posted on December 4, 2012 by


There is this idea, lingering out there in grocery story aisles and behind white picket fences, that working in the profession of death, dying, and bereavement is depressing. This idea, at least as it tends to be conveyed by folks who admire or watch it from afar, seems to be juxtaposed with the notion that people who do this work are “special.” In the many conversations I have had with people throughout the field, it seems that we are all drawn to or called to this work for different reasons. There are those who stumbled into it, those who had a great internship, and those who had an interaction with a child years ago that shaped their outlook and helped them articulate what they wanted to do with their “one wild and precious life.” There are those who experienced a death as a child, and those who are still seeking to be heard and understood because of a death. The reasons we do what we do are countless, even if it is just wanting to be seen as “special.”

No matter what draws any of us to do this work, whether as a professional, volunteer, engaged community member or advocate, I don’t often hear us articulate this work in paradigms outside of a traditional model, often framed around mental health. Even though many of us are edgy and working to redefine so many paradigms within our cultural understanding of death and grief, I feel like there is one element of this work that is overlooked: social justice. To be short, I’ll simply define social justice as systemic changes that promote principles of compassion, equality, dignity, and basic human rights without oppression or discrimination (applicable to multiple areas of the human experience).

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised when I confess to being a sarcastic nuisance while in college. During my senior year I was in a class on theology and community service. We had to work with a population that would shift and shape our theology. When the professor called on me for my chosen population, I said, “I want to work with the rich. Those folks got problems.” The former priest rolled his eyes and said, “Go volunteer at hospice. I suppose rich people die, too.” And that was my beginning. But from day one, as a result of this class and its workshops, I viewed my work as a volunteer and then later as a hospice chaplain through the lens of social justice.

When Phyllis Silverman says that death is not just an emotional event, but also a social and economic event, well, we need to pay close attention to those implications. That’s where the issues of social justice lie.

The social, emotional, and communal impact of death has many layers, many of which are quite tremendous depending on someone’s socio-economics, race, religion, sexuality, family structure, support system, geographic residency, etc. Although we are getting better at articulating the needs of grieving children and raising awareness, I would caution us not to forget the big picture, as I fear the latter will remain with us if we don’t look at all of the elements in the grief molecule.

In so many ways, the work we do occurs within a societal construct, a human-made issue that, as a result, has moral and ethical ramifications. We know that children and grieving people do better, for the most part, when they meet and build relationships with others experiencing similar feelings. We see that at our centers and in our programs on a daily basis. We also know that we need to create a safe space for the expression of all feelings, build a community, create an environment of understanding, and build a place for kids to simply be kids. These latter parts are done in reaction to the external atmosphere and culture created by society, which has become quite accustomed to ignoring or alienating the bereaved. And therein this construct lays the beginning of how we can talk about the economic and societal matters.

I think it is fair to say that when a child’s emotional self and grief experience are not honored and affirmed it is emotional neglect. When the poor cannot afford to bury their dead or perform their cultural rituals, we can call that unethical. When death arrives prematurely because of a lack of access to medical treatment, I feel confident saying it is unethical and it will impact a child’s grief. When the bereaved only have three days off from work, it is an economic issue and a moral question for employers. When families are abandoned after a death, it is a social issue with moral implications.

We know the many aspects that comprise a family’s grief. We know the muddy details they trudge through on a daily basis. Many of these scenarios are our own doing in that they are created by society. Isolation is not an inherent quality of grief and the human experience. Society has collectively created it.

There are so many components and aspects to our work that extend past the emotional component of grief. Although there is so much more work to be done on the emotional front, I’d love for us to be in dialogue about all elements of the grief experience. As we continue to work towards reforming our culture’s treatment of the bereaved, let’s not forget the many parts of life that death affects.

Ten years ago, at the end of the semester my senior year, the priest who told me to go find rich people at hospice asked me what I learned. Knowing my audience, I said, “Father, I assume you are familiar with The Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. Well, parallel this: ‘Blessed are those who mourn’ with ‘Children are the forgotten mourners.’ Father, I believe we have a problem.”

Posted in: grief, hospice