By Kara LC Jones
Two different experiences brought me to today’s column topic. First, I remember reading a poet’s work, after the death of one of his parents, about the surprise of learning there is a whole world of grief support, materials, and organizations. Second, in my own grief experience, I at first thought we had to create what we needed, only to find over time that there was so much available for bereaved parents, ongoing and happening long before we needed it.
It’s something I saw play out repeatedly when I went on to support other families where a child had died. Families very quickly, often not always, wanted to start a foundation or organization, in the name of the child, to do some piece of grief support work. Partly, it is that families often don’t know what else to do with all the love, money, time, and energy that would have been for the child who is no longer physically here. Partly, it is that families don’t realize how much already exists in the world to help guide us in the grief experience.
For the most part, I think we, individually and as a culture, find ourselves surprised about what exists prior to our grief experience because of one thing – grief illiteracy.
Collectively, elements like capitalism don’t want to allow us time and space to gain this type of literacy. Think about the cultural “norm” of three days’ paid bereavement leave. There’s no planning time offered before death. Three days after the death is pitiful, and doesn’t allow for actual integration of the grief experience and how your life feels now, post-loss. Only those who are full-time employed with benefits get that kind of leave, so contractors, part-timers, and gig workers are all out of luck, and don’t even get those three days of pay.
Individually, I think we humans sometimes still hold a superstitiousness around death, dying, and grief that says, “Don’t look too closely, lest you invoke it!” In my experience, I’ve encountered families who don’t want hospice because they don’t want their loved one to “give up.” They don’t see advanced planning or palliative care/hospice as being about quality of life leading up to death. Rather, they feel that invoking these activities will invoke death. Of course every situation is unique to the person, family, and community, but in general, I feel these experiences contribute to the our collective cultural reality, where grief illiteracy drums on and on until a person finds themselves in crisis after a loss and is surprised to find a world of grief offerings out here.
So, asking ourselves, friends, families, and even communities to become grief-literate often means it’s going to take a bit of strength and being different, to stand against the norms. It might go a long way toward grief literacy if we first acknowledge this, and begin by asking ourselves things like, “Who might stand with me against these cultural norms to explore grief literacy instead?” Or, “Where exactly do I want to take this stand against grief illiteracy? Within my family, but not in a workplace? Or vice versa?”
It might also be helpful to acknowledge that asking these questions and re-examining our values and priorities takes time, and is a layered proposition. For instance, does shame crop up when we name grief experiences in new ways, because it feels like a betrayal to our family or cultural rules? Again, feelings of belonging can strengthen us to ask these questions and make changes, so you might circle back around to ask, “Who wants to re-examine these things with me?”
Once we begin to explore our grief literacy process, I propose that creativity can aid us a great deal. Here are a few approaches I’ve come across that might be helpful in your path:
- Death Cafés, Vashon Conversations, and advanced planning meetups – Death Cafés are casual meet-up spaces, in person or online, where you can chat about death and grief and advanced planning over a cuppa and a snack; see https://deathcafe.com/. You can see a Vashon Conversations’ presentation at https://vimeo.com/364926686. For advanced planning, start with https://www.fivewishes.org/.
- Death Deck and other “game” approaches – Card decks or “game” type approaches can be used individually or in community. For The Death Deck, see https://thedeathdeck.com/. For The Artist’s Grief Deck, see https://www.artistsliteracies.org/artists-grief-deck. Grief Watch has several decks at https://griefwatch.com/collections/special-stuff/products/grief-support-cards.
- Local librarians, grief coaches, and death doulas – I cannot say enough good about local librarians! Go talk with them. See what they can point you toward. Books, ‘zines, sometimes even library events are happening around grief literacy. It’s also worth looking into the fields of grief coaching and death doulas to see who is in your area – some of us even work online so you can have access to us from anywhere! Talk with them. Creative conversations can open many avenues.
- Consider accessing online, live offerings – Many grief organizations now offer grief education. While many of these events used to happen in-person only for “professionals,” many are now open online and welcome anyone wanting to raise their grief literacy level. See The Dougy Center at: https://www.dougy.org/professionals-trainings. Also see The Full Circle Center’s monthly “Conversations About Grief” series: https://fullcirclegc.org/conversations-about-grief/.
- Lastly, in my own work, I’ve been part of a monthly, free, Zoom series called Happy Hour for Death + Grief Workers. While this is not a training, and is aimed at those already working in the field, I wanted to mention it here because I know many of us workers have been feeling the burn-out and our own needs coming to the fore. As a way of tending your own grief literacy and self-care, if you are a death and grief worker, you are welcome to join us here https://app.ruzuku.com/courses/86185/about .
Remember, start somewhere. Start with yourself. And by starting with your own sense of grief literacy, you can add to the cultural shift to collectively raise grief literacy. Let’s be in this creative process together!