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Keep it at a Distance

British historian Arnold Toynbee once remarked that death was “un-American.” America is a youth culture that emphasizes beauty, virility, ambition and athletic prowess. Within this culture, aging, decline, and death are things that happen to other people, preferably in other countries, but not to us, the type of thing we see on television but rarely stare in the face. We keep death at a distance. Death is for the very old who have used up their allotment of life. It is just as well. Only when death hits the young do we have a truly tragic understanding of the event.

Americans keep death at a distance, but at a heavy emotional cost. At funerals, dressed in black, they bravely attempt to meet the dignity of the occasion with dry eyes. Tears and wailing are for those undignified people in other countries. In fact, these other cultures have organized ways of showing and expending grief that many Americans entirely lack. In place of organized grieving, one by one, without the support of each other, many Americans engage in a piecemeal and often haphazard grieving process that is rarely effective. Pushing death aside may have its benefits for the young, but it short-circuits the natural human need to come to terms with the effect death has on us, whether our own deaths or the deaths of those we love.

These remarks about American attitudes are generalizations, but they are not without meaning. In the United States, direct conversations about death may be risky, and may tend to offend Americans. In speaking about these subjects, the best advice is to allow the American to bring the subject up and set the parameters for the conversation. Bear in mind, on the other side of this tactic, that the American person may have unresolved grief over a personal loss and may see someone from another culture as the kind of person who could better understand their fears, doubts and grief than would another American. In that case, try to be a good listener.

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