Talk of death is healthy
Mike Goldberg, community outreach and education coordinator at Palliative Manitoba. (photo from Mike Goldberg)
Despite the fact that the vast majority of us have lost a loved one, fear and misunderstanding often complicate the grieving process, according to Mike Goldberg, community outreach and education coordinator at Palliative Manitoba.
“Death is not a part of our culture,” said Goldberg. “We tend to revere youth and vitality over age and wisdom, as opposed to Eastern cultures.”
Goldberg, who grew up through the Jewish school system in Winnipeg – attending Ramah Hebrew School and Gray Academy of Jewish Education – earned his master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Regina. He gives many presentations and talks to people in different communities about palliative care and what he describes as “our death-denying society” – and how we can positively change that culture. He also facilitates educational programs at Palliative Manitoba for healthcare aides and support workers; assists people with intellectual disabilities; works with members of First Nations communities; and facilitates grief support groups for kids ages 9 to 12 (called Kids Grieve Too) and 13 to 17 (called Teens Grieve Too).
There was a time when people “just aged in place and the family took care of them at home … and there was nothing else to say about it,” said Goldberg. “That was just the way things were done. But, now it’s more commonplace to see somebody who is getting older being supported in a healthcare facility, a seniors care home.
“It certainly has to do with technology and the economy. You don’t see a lot of people with families that have one primary breadwinner, while the others are able to support family members who are elderly or sick in the family. Everybody seems to have to work, right?”
He said that more Eastern cultures, and sometimes South American ones, can be “more communal and more of a collective society.” He said, “I think we’d like to think we’re communal and collective in Canada, but we’re very much individualistic and self-reliant here. And, we’re very similar to the U.S. in that way.
“We don’t really have a lot of space to care for our elderly family members when it comes to the aging process, so we’ve established these support systems outside the home. And then, it sort of perpetuates itself – this cycle of having the aging experience happen outside the home … and the dying experience happens outside the house. And that has contributed to a fear or denial of death. It just doesn’t happen in our purview.
“If a person is approaching end-of-life, if they have a terminal illness or if they simply have a life-limiting illness … if they need extra supports at their place of residence, we can connect a worker to them to meet with them at home and to provide a supportive presence, to be a companion with them,” he said about Palliative Manitoba.
“For those looking for grief support,” he continued, “we have volunteers that can call you and have a conversation over the phone with you about once a week. Again, they’re not there to provide advice, they’re just there to listen and provide a supportive presence. We find the most appropriate way to support somebody through grief is to listen to them.”
Goldberg is a proponent of inviting open conversations about death and dying, and of exposing kids to death, grief and loss at a young age, not sheltering them. He suggested being as direct as possible with kids and with anyone you meet in terms of language, while also being hyper-aware of word usage – not using euphemisms and metaphors concerning death.
“It’s difficult to talk about death, because it’s something that is going to happen to all of us and represents this unknown,” he said. “But, it’s universal and, to better support each other, we need to talk about it.
“We also need to educate professionals working in this field, who are supporting those approaching end-of-life. These are the people on the ground, experiencing life and death every day. They need to have a high quality of understanding of how to communicate, what the right and wrong things are to say, and being better listeners.
“That’s really crucial,” he stressed. “It doesn’t matter what role you have in society – a nurse or whoever – if we just became better at listening to each other, then that would go a long way in having more direct conversations about death and dying, and changing the culture around it.
“The thing that I’ve come to understand working in this field is that it’s not homogenous emotions we experience. It’s a wide variety of emotions and sometimes a rollercoaster of emotions. The grieving process is not the five-step staircase we tend to think it is. It’s a fluid process that you could go back and forth between the stages.
“There’s certainly a lot of hope in grief and in death,” he said, “and I see that when people tell me that they couldn’t imagine doing what I do, because of the sadness that comes along with grief. I just tell them that I’m able to be with people in one of the most important and sacred times of their life, at the end of life. And, to be able to work with somebody and hear their stories and be with them is a privilege.
“The reality is, everybody grieves differently. There’s no right or wrong way. It’s just however you’re able to make sense of what’s going on.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.