The high costs of grief illiteracy

Too few of us know what to do or say about grief.
Too few of us know what to do or say about grief.
Image: REUTERS/John Kolesidis
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In my decades of talking to people about loss and counseling them in their grief, I often have been struck by just how ill-equipped most of us are when it comes to talking about death.

Death is an unwanted part of life, but an outcome that every single one of us will have to face at some point. And yet we are often so uncomfortable with death’s inevitability that we find ways to avoid discussing it, or even thinking about it, until it becomes impossible to avoid—and then, having had so little practice, we often simply don’t know what to say.

We live in a grief-illiterate society. This is why many people who have recently lost a loved one have no familiarity with or understanding of grief, which can deepen and prolong their feelings of pain and heartache. They can struggle with unfamiliar reactions like guilt or anger, not realizing that these can be very common and even productive elements of the grieving process. And in many cases they don’t know how to talk about it with others, or how to reach out to those who can help, and so they end up feeling lost and alone. These are things I counsel people on all the time, helping to guide them to an understanding of how grief is a normal, even central, part of human existence.

Going through grief takes time, energy, and understanding, but it is not an easy road. By demystifying death, we can alleviate some of the pain and loneliness experienced by those who lose someone.

The logistical, social, and economic costs of grief

The emotional toll that loss takes, however, is only one aspect of the negative fallout of the taboo around death. It has real logistical, social, and even economic repercussions as well, both for those who have experienced loss and the communities they belong to.

While I and my colleagues who teach, counsel families, and run grief support groups are doing our part to encourage honest discourse around death, proactive and direct interventions, including on the part of employers and governments, are also greatly needed to solve many of these issues.

One good example of where we are falling short is the lack of a coherent conversation about bereavement leave in the US. Only one state—Oregon—has any kind of legally mandated leave for employees who have had a loss in the family, and among companies that provide paid bereavement leave, the average allowed time off is just three days.

Most grief outlasts three days of bereavement leave

For most, acute grief can extend weeks and even months. The lack of informed leave policies not only causes pain to the bereaved employee, who may often be faced with the impossible choice of whether to return to work while still within the fog of intense pain, or to lose income while they go through the necessary process of healing. It also harms employers, who end up either with workers on open-ended unpaid leave, or with lowered productivity and morale when workers who are not ready return to their desks.

It is clear that a reckoning is long overdue, and bringing employers and even legislators into the fold is the only path to clear and compassionate policies around loss. There is a massive need, and a huge opportunity, for motivated builders, thinkers, and activists to coalesce around this issue as a crucial part of the employee lifecycle and a factor in the overall health of the workforce.

On the socioeconomic front, our culture’s illiteracy around grief costs us more than just emotional hardship and lost productivity. For example, most bereaved families are eligible for various benefits, important sources of funding that can help defray funeral costs, make up for lost household income, and generally assist with the difficulty of the weeks and months after a loved one passes. These include Social Security survivor benefits, veteran benefits, FEMA’s covid-19 funeral assistance, Federal Employee Retirement System survivor benefits, and more. But many families are unaware of any benefits beyond life insurance payouts, and even those who know about them are often not familiar enough with the application processes to make use of them while in the throes of grief.

This is only one costly example of the logistical hoops that bereaved families have to jump through while under-informed on important steps and details. Many must also deal with wills, assets, and probate; plan a funeral; write an obituary; close down the accounts that their loved one will no longer be using; and many more such tasks.

Our silence around death also puts bereaved families at greater risk of threat or exploitation. While the majority of individuals and organizations working in the end-of-life space are morally upright and deeply compassionate, there will always be those who seek to take advantage of people at their most vulnerable. Collections agents, for example, have gained a reputation for trying to convince family members that they are responsible for a deceased loved one’s debts—an illegal practice that persists because grieving people who lack the relevant knowledge will sometimes simply pay the bills to make the incessant calls stop.

Innovating with purpose

Opening up the conversation around death has the potential to help with much of this, not least because it may inspire innovators to turn their focus to these issues. We need large-scale campaigns that inform the public as a whole, rather than only the bereaved, about their rights and best practices in these and other situations. This is part of why more cultural forthrightness about death is important—not just to help educate families, but to encourage local governments, public figures, media outlets, and creatives to step into the breach to provide necessary exposure and innovative solutions.

There is both a need and an opportunity for groundbreaking companies to come in with a range of solutions and methodologies, providing a more rational, humane, instructive, and supportive experience to families that are already having a very rough time.

With that kind of help, we can eradicate the stigma of grief, loss, and death, in order to maintain a healthier relationship with the end of life, both as individuals and as a culture.

David Kessler is the chief empathy officer at Empathy, a technology company that alleviates some of the burden of loss for bereaved families. He is the author of several books, most recently “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” David teaches people around the world how we can live fulfilled lives even in the aftermath of tragedy.