This article discusses the subject of familial communication and the effects that a breakdown or total lack of talk can have when dealing with death and loss.  

Although  death  is  featured  on  the front  pages of daily newspapers, Western society today has become death  phobic.  Talking about death is mostly taboo, and we actively avoid people who have been recently bereaved.

A  century  ago,  life  was  more  precarious  and  we all  came  across death many times in our lifetime. In 1910  most  people  died  in  their  own beds at  home,  while  a  hundred years later,  in  2010,  58%  of  all  deaths in  England  took place in hospital and only 19% in their own home. [1]

While  just  over  half  a  million  people die  every  year  in  England,  about  one every  minute,  many  adults  may  have never experienced someone close to them dying, and few have ever seen a dead body. Children are frequently kept away from funerals even  when  it  is someone close to them and when they specifically request to be there.

While all life naturally seeks to avoid death, this  is  not  the  same  as  fearing it. If a branch falls from a tree, we step away. But we have an additional fear of  what  will happen after we die. Since fear  of  death  is  not  the experience of every culture, it must be something that  is  somehow  taught.  In  part  this  can be  explained by a our cultural story of there being a judgmental God. [2]

But  why  over  the  last  century  have we  become  so  phobic  about death?

hOver  the  next  few  years  I believe  we  have  a  unique  window  of  opportunity  to  face  and  heal this  trauma.  This  is  because  of  the  100 year  anniversary  of  the  Great  War, later  named  World  War One.  There are  a  number  of   reasons  why  the seeds  of  our  death  phobia  were  sown  at  this  time,  and  were  compounded by other factors in later years.

Firstly was the  trauma  of  the  war  itself. The  total  number  of  military  and civilian  casualties  in  World  War  I  was over  37 million. There were over 16 million deaths (which includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians) and 20 million  wounded,  ranking  it  among  the deadliest  conflicts in human history.

About  two-thirds  of  military  deaths in  World  War  I were  in  battle,  unlike the  conflicts  that  took  place  in the  19th  century  when  the  majority  of  deaths  were  due  to  disease. Nevertheless, disease, including the Spanish flu and deaths while held as prisoners of war, still caused about one third of total military deaths for all  belligerents  in  WW1. [3]

The  horror  of  the  war  for  those  who  survived  was  so  great  that  afterwards  they  did  not  want  to  talk about  it, and  those  back  home  did not  want to  hear  it  either.  The  curse of  the  famous  British  ‘stiff  upper  lip’. [4] At  the  time,  most  shell  shock  victims  were  treated  harshly  and  with  little  sympathy  as  their  symptoms  were not  understood  and  they  were  seen as  a  sign  of  weakness.  So instead of receiving proper care, many victims endured  more trauma with  treatments  such  as  solitary  confinement or electric shock therapy. [5]

Although  men  were  not  compelled to  fight  until  Conscription  was  instated  in  1916,  there  was  enormous  social pressure  on  men  to  volunteer. [6]  For example,  at  the  start of  the  war  in  August 1914,  Admiral Charles  Fitzgerald  founded  the  Order  of the  White  Feather.  The  organization aimed  to  shame  men  into  enlisting  in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white  feather  if  they  were  not  wearing a uniform. [7] By the end of the war, the  slaughter  of  millions  of  idealistic  young  men  appeared catastrophic and senseless.

This  created  some  sense  of  guilt  in many  who  had  been  so enthusiastic supporters  of  the  war  at  its  outset  and so  had  their  own  reasons  to  participate  in  the  conspiracy  of  silence.

The  trauma  of  these  deaths  was  compounded  by  the  fact  that  no  bodies  were  brought  home  for  a  funeral  or  to  bury.  In the  early  days  of  the  war  a  handful  of  officers  bodies  were  repatriated  to  the  UK  with  the cost  paid  by  relatives.  However  repatriation  from  a  war  zone  was  banned from  mid-1915  mainly  because  of  the  logistical,  health  and  morale  problems  the return  of  thousands  of  bodies  would  create.  So  all  a  family  received  was  a  telegram  that  began “Deeply regret to inform you…“. [8]

At the end of World War One, the 1918  flu  pandemic (that  lasted  from January 1918 through to December 1920), infected 500 million people across the world, including remote  Pacific  islands and the Arctic. It killed 40 to 100 million of people—three to  five  percent  of  the  world’s  population.

To maintain  morale, wartime  censors  minimized  early  reports of  illness  and  mortality  in  Germany, Britain,  France  and   the  United  States;  but  the newspapers  were  free  to  report  the  epidemic’s  effects  in  neutral  Spain,  creating  a false  impression  of  Spain  as  especially hard hit—thus  the  pandemic’s  nickname ‘Spanish flu’. [9] The  virus predominantly killed  previously  healthy  young  adults  and brought  large scale death right into the heart of communities.

dOne  more  significant  event  in  the  20th century  has  compounded  this  disconnection  from  death  in  society  has  been  the creation  of  the  National  Health  Service  in 1945.

This  has  taken  both  birth  and  death  out  of the  community  and  into  institutions  and  the hands  of  professionals.  This  is  compounded  by  the  pervading  view  that  considers death  in  hospital  to  somehow  to be  a failure.

The  collective  agreement  of  how  to deal  with  large  scale  trauma  and death  at  the  end  of  the  Great  War,  was  not to talk  about  it.  Tragically,  far  from being  “the  war  to  end  all  wars”, WW1  scarred  western  society  whose sons  were  sent  to  die  in  another  war within  a  generation.

This  became  parental  patterning  that  taught  the  generation  that  lived  through  WW2  to  not talk  about  it.

From  my  own  experience  I  know  almost  nothing  of  how  my  mother  lived under  occupation  in  France  and  only a  handful  of  wartime  snippets  from  my father  he  told  me  in  his  dying months.  Of  my  grandparents  I  know almost  nothing,  a gap  in  our  family story  that  I  hear  echoed  from  so  many people  when  I  ask  what  they  know about  their  grandparents  in  WW1.  Not to  know  the  story  of  your  ancestors is  to  be  cast  adrift  without  a  map.

So  it  seems  that  WW1  marks  the  point where  we  stopped  telling  the next generation  about  where  they  had  come  from.  Losing  respect  for  themselves, the  next  generation  had  no  elders to  look  up  to  and  learn  from.  Today  we  have  replaced  elders  with celebrities chosen from amongst our peers without substance. This brings with  it  the  fear  of  growing  old  and the  loss  of  respect.

As  Stephen  Jenkinson [10] points out, we are a ‘competence addicted  society’  so  we  fear  this loss  of  abilities  since  it  is  only  in  our being  able  to  do  things that  we  derive our  worth.

There  is  an  important  reason  why  we need to  face  our  WW1 stories.

Studies  with  mice  have  found  that the  genetic  imprint  from  traumatic experiences  carries  through  at  least two  generations. [11]  This  means  that the  trauma  of  past  wars  is  passed  down.

This  collective  and  individual  unhealed  trauma  is  a  significant  part  of why  we  are  unable  to  deal  with death  as  a  part  of  life  in  modern society.  All  these  factors  taken  together have  contributed  to  society  focusing as  little  as  possible  on  death  as  an integral  part  of  life.

The  preamble  to  the  Constitution  of UNESCO  declares that  “since  wars begin  in  the minds of men, it is in the minds  of  men that  the  defenses  of peace  must  be  constructed”. [12]

The current 1914-1918 centenary of WW1 presents us with an opportunity to critically  reflect  on  both  the  legacy of  World  War  I and  the  continuation  of war in our world.

By  doing  this,  together  with  connecting  with  our  own  family  stories,  we can  begin  to  heal  the  pain  passed  on to  us  from  our  ancestors  and  contribute  to  bringing  about  the  more beautiful  world  our  hearts know is possible. [13]

Mike Grenville, Celebrant, home funeral supporter and transitionist. 

Twitter: @mikegrenville

07974 924289