Speaking of the Dead

The question of whether we can communicate with the dead has provoked endless speculation.  Ironically, this cultural preoccupation is often matched by our reluctance to Candle2speak about the dead.  This reveals not only fears concerning our own demise, but also our anxieties over losing someone else through death.

Fortunately, children and youth don’t typically encounter death.  Even when they do, they are often more resilient than we might suppose.  As Psychology Today magazine rightly notes, such resilience can be fostered by giving children opportunities to discuss the person who has died (and the feelings caused by that loss).  Because they are older, young adults are more likely to know somebody who has died, including a friend or peer.  Various resources are available for these individuals, including a recently formed grief support group on the campus where I teach, an encouraging and timely development.

For many adults, death is all too common.  One reason is that Baby Boomers—a huge percentage of the American population—have been dealing with their parents’ mortality for almost two decades.  At workplace lunch tables and water coolers, in car lines at elementary schools, at social, civic, and church gatherings, it’s not uncommon to hear a person discussing the death (or approaching death) of his/her parent.  These interactions, albeit sometimes painful, provide social and emotional solidarity—a glue of grief, empathy, and understanding that has helped millions of people confront life’s finitude.  If it takes a village to raise a child, then it also takes a village to bury the dead.

However, there’s an exception to these examples.  Almost everybody with whom I work or socialize has a spouse or partner, so their relationship with that person is often a topic of conversation.  This is natural and understandable: a spouse/partner is frequently the most significant individual in a person’s life.  Given that my own partner died seven years ago, my references to him are in the past, not present, tense.  Though I assumed this would go largely unnoticed (he was rather than he is), it nevertheless produces—more often than not—noticeable reactions: a hesitant pause, an ever-so-slight shift in body language, a break in eye contact.

I initially thought that these conversational cul-de-sacs resulted from the concern that I might become weepy (or—gasp—actually start sobbing!) if others encouraged me to discuss my deceased partner.  Or maybe it was just the awkwardness of mixing the living with the dead—the former are tangible, vibrant, and consequential, while the dead are, well, none of those things.  Or perhaps I gave the impression of being stuck in the past, unable to adopt a Hallmark attitude about the future.  As plausible as these explanations might be, I can’t help from thinking that something else might (also) be going on.  And here is where social psychology can provide some insights.

In 1967, two American psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, created a scale of life events (the Social Readjustment Rating Scale) that they hoped could be used to determine the likelihood that somebody would develop a stress-related illness.  To predict this likelihood, Homes and Rahe had to determine the relative amount of stress that various life events cause.  Among the 43 events they eventually listed, they concluded that the death of a spouse generates (by a large margin) the greatest amount of stress.  This is one of the most robust and consistent findings in modern psychology.  It varies little with age or by culture.  Little wonder that the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the so-called same-sex marriage case in 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges), noted that committed relationships respond “to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one is there.”  Having a spouse or partner, Kennedy continued, offers two people “the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live, there will be someone to care for the other.”

Therefore, what had seemed mysterious to me, now seems less so.  When a person in the midst and middle of life brings up the subject of a deceased partner, it’s bound to make others—also in the midst and middle of life—think about the possibility of losing their own spouses/partners.  Admittedly, thinking about something is not the same as actually experiencing it.  But why even think about it—especially if it’s the most stressful thing that can happen to a person—if you don’t have to?  (A few friends who have thought about it have responded to me by saying “I’d go crazy” or “I’d kill myself.”)

Consequently, when some of us want to speak about the dead, we might need to limit our remarks to the dead.  The awkward pauses are far less frequent, though they are also considerably longer.