What Death Positivity Means to Me

As I've written before, I'm a Deathling, a member of the Order of the Good Death, and what's called “death positive.” It's not a phrase I'm wild about, but calling myself a “Deathling” makes even less sense to people, “into death” is even less helpful or accurate.

In the last couple months, I've found myself traveling with death and grief, from the loss of a kindred spirit I never knew to the death of my father after decades of illness. It's forced me to sit closely with what this movement to me in a way that I hadn't when my mother died (the movement started just around the time she died, so it was a thing I encountered after my initial grief).

While death positivity could be loosely described as accepting and acknowledging that death is a part of life, it doesn't mean “yay, death is great let's all be happy about death.” It's not that kind of positive. Before I write about what it means to me, this is the definition which the Order uses on the front page:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.

There's a list of beliefs, which I affirm and encourage any one interested to read. My own reflections don't speak for the Order, though I do think they align with a lot of others’ beliefs and experiences.

Allowing Grief

As I said, there may be a misconception that positive means joyful or stoic. Death is a part of life we cannot avoid. Accepting that fact does not mean we do not suffer, sometimes deeply. Deathlings reject timetables, shoulds, and shame for how we grieve. I am absolutely seeing a therapist and talking with her about it. I am also fighting the expectations and prescriptions I've picked up in our death-negative culture about how I will act around grief and the resulting shames and shoulds which creep in.

There is no shame in feeling deep grief for the loss of a 90-something grandparent who lived a full, happy life and died peacefully. There is no shame in bodily responses accompanying your shock, grief, and rage when you learn of the death of someone who wasn't even your internet friend. There is no shame in feeling relief that a person has died, whether because they're no longer suffering, because they had hurt you, or for some other reason.

There's no shame because there's no should. And, as I rant to my therapist, there's no learned skill to grieving. I'm constantly fighting my ingrained expectations that there should be. Years of experience and therapy have given me some tools so that I'm not entirely unmoored. But I find myself fighting the “shoulds.” I should be better at engaging with feelings as they arise, I should be more sad right now, I should be less sad right now, I should benefit from all the time I've spent thinking and talking about death. The message comes back to: I should be able to do this right.

That's not how it works. There's no “right.” No two deaths and losses are the same. With my father dead, I now have no parents at all. I grieve for that. I grieve for the fractures in our relationship. I don't find myself wishing I could do things over, but I do grieve. It's entirely different and complicated. So as I'm in this place before I move on to living with mourning, I reach back often to the things I've read or affirmations from other Deathlings that grief is a part of death.

Living With Mourning

This is where the Order first entered my life. If you know me, you have probably heard me talk about my mother, who died just before my 25th birthday. I talk about her, about how I miss her, about her terminal illness, even about her death. I've heard the same from many other friends who lost their mothers when they were young adults. But as I mentioned above, there are expectations we absorb around timetables, about what is and isn't abnormal. There are the senses we get from others that they think this is unusual or unhealthy.

Just as death is a part of life, so is mourning. I think I will always mourn for my mother. I'll mourn the adult-to-adult relationship we never had. I'll mourn her smile. I'll wish I could share things with her. (I won't miss arguing.) This isn't the same as the grief one feels right after a loss or even in the first few years. This is the rest of life. It's not as debilitating as that initial grief, even when it hits in a flood. It's a part of me like the arthritis in my feet. Not a constant pain. Not debilitating. Not as wildly unpredictable as grief. It is often present, sometimes painful.

There is a gift in not denying that one person's death may stay with you forever…and another's may not. No shoulds. No shame.

I Will Die

I encountered the Reality of death around the time of my mother's diagnosis, when I was still in college. I suddenly Knew that everyone I loved would die. I knew that I would die. Everything felt overshadowed by death. This was not death positivity. This left me overwhelmed and suicidal. Understanding death as a part of life, accepting that I cannot change it, being open about my rage and grief, years of therapy and engagement with folks in the Order have helped me reshape that into something less hopeless.

I still know that I will die. But rather than make bucket lists or fight death and aging, I am trying to focus on how I want to be. I try to live up to the name my parents gave me. I try not to put my hopes in a future I'm not promised. Almost every day, I reflect that I have lived another day. Whether I only live a few more weeks or 60 more years, I'll never get through all the things I'd like to do. But each of those days I can do my best to be the person I'd like to be. Grief, rage, and mourning will be part of such a life. I hope that denial won't.

There's a lot more that death positivity has meant to me which I haven't had space to write about here. I was grateful to recently be able to help a friend find a natural burial site for her father, whose health is failing. I have written up my own wishes about my burial but have so much more to make explicit, even though I hope these won't be needed for a long time and I know my ideas may change. I have a thought-provoking journal called I Will Die, where I write out responses to prompts about death and how I want to live.

My husband just found a sign at one of our local coffee shops for Death Cafes happening monthly. I'm going to check out the next event and hope the conversation continues.

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Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.