The literacy of grief and death is more important than ever

It’s a bizarre time, to say the very least. I, maybe like you, am riding endless waves of thoughts and feelings through this COVID pandemic. One minute, fighting back a lump in my throat while scrolling endless newsfeed of horrific stories of the dangers for front line workers – some of who are my colleagues and friends. The next minute, finding much-needed laughter with my sister virtually while practicing Cher’s early 90s Hot Dance routine on my back deck.

Having worked in grief, death and dying for nearly a decade, I realize there is space for all of these thoughts and feelings. Thinking about and confronting loss and mortality, even while very much alive, requires much of our vulnerable selves and our full experiences of being human.

As gift planning professionals, we are people well versed in planning for the unexpected, life and societal changes, and end of life from an administrative perspective. However, I find, like many sectors, we skirt around the topic of mortality, grief, death and dying from a personal, emotional and coping perspective. The literacy of grief and death is more important than ever – it is life literacy. It doesn’t make facing these things easier, but understanding it, building in resources and supports, can help us develop guideposts that make the journey a little kinder, smoother for ourselves and others.

I acknowledge I am bringing one, privileged, world view to this, as attitudes and beliefs around death and dying vary globally, issues of inequity and privilege as key influencers. This western context culture of hyperproductivity, anti-aging and medical intervention, our personhood, contribution and value often rated through an economic lens, has created a disconnect from and the institutionalization of grief, dying and death. It has created a culture where it is largely seen as separate, as medical, not as an inevitable life event. Our knowledge of grief, mortality and death is a result of the cultural context and systems that inform our understanding and as a result, many of us do not engage in related aspects until necessary, and sometimes not even then. It’s understandable – it can be uncomfortable and upsetting. There is much education that needs to be done.

While COVID-19 will not affect everyone in the same ways, its existence is surfacing a new uncertain global, shared reality, bringing many things including grief, loss, and death. It demands we think about or address our own vulnerability and mortality, and hopefully, that of others. While death is one extreme, loss is happening along the continuum – from jobs to feelings of security, relationships, traditions, and more. It is in the death and dying space where I have learned how to acknowledge and cope with loss and grief in my own journey, and how to bear witness, hold space and walk alongside others in theirs. The best part is we don’t need to be experts. We just need to start.

Being, Not Doing

I used to feel like there was always a need to be “doing”. There are many things we can do to offer comfort to ourselves and others. Sometimes the most important “doing” is just being. Taking a deep breath. Holding presence with another without speaking. Practicing mindfulness. Connecting with the environment around us. Learning to simply, stay - with an experience, thought, or emotion. There are great practitioners, like Jane Clapp, who can offer techniques for being present with ourselves, in our bodies and for grounding through these times.

Listen Up

Active Listening is powerful. It validates other’s feelings, and as a recipient, we can feel understood. We aren’t “doing” by problem solving or providing answers, but simply acknowledging someone’s grief, worry, or suffering is healing. Our presence and attention are invaluable resources.

Good Grief

Learning about the stages of grief, different kinds of grief, like disenfranchised grief, helps us identify and validate our human experiences in all their complexity, and empathize with others – from fear, to shock, anxiety, sadness and more. Many of us are experiencing anticipatory grief.

It is important to understand what is “normal” grief versus when someone ought to seek professional help if experiencing excessive and or prolonged shock or functional paralysis.

Have the conversation

We know how to have important conversations in our working context. We need to ensure we have conversations about what matters most in life and death with loved ones too. We cannot force this, but by approaching conversations through activities, positive questions, or at different times, we may be able to understand each other’s wishes, fears, quality of life decisions, what is most important to us, who is best speak on our behalf, and what the right decisions would be for us. Conversations now can mean less uninformed, even if difficult, decisions laterThe Benefit of Ritual

Ritual, traditions, and broader concepts of ritual, alone or together, can be guideposts for acknowledging our individual and collective spirituality, experiences, time, and transition. Rituals can include things like food, music, candle lighting, verse, or something like the ancient Hawaiian practice of Ho'oponopono and forgiveneness: I love you. I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you. There is always a good time for these four life-affirming phrases.  


Seriously. Laughing is a necessity.

What’s Your Legacy?

Our legacy is who we are, every day, through big and small contributions and expressions of our values, relationships. It includes meaning making. Administratively, legacy is advance care plans that can help ensure our values are realized. This includes Wills, medical directives, substitute decision makers, personal care, end of life and post death preferences. Connie Jorsvik walks through advance care plan details in this comprehensive webinar. This can include creativity and fun. This process is a necessary gift to ourselves and loved ones in the future. By thinking about legacy holistically, we can develop daily perspective and focus on priorities that make ourselves whole.

The Death Literacy Movement

Communities of people already exist around the idea of “taking back control” around death and these conversations,  from Order of the Good Death, to Modern Loss, the continuing global awareness of Day of the Dead, Death Cafes, death doulas, Compassionate Communities movement, home funeral options, books, and more. All are just a Google away and may provide great resource and comfort at this time.

I can do my best to provide more resources or supports, too. Get in touch (without touching). 

Stay home. Stay safe.


Leigh, thank you for your gentle, thoughtful and thought provoking piece on a topic that most of us prefer not to address. I’d love to share it around. I participated in the recent CAGP webinar on cultivating PG prospects during this pandemic but your approach to the inevitable while ensuring you’re remembered through a legacy gift is truly inspiring. Thank you and stay safe and healthy! Hugs Wendy
Leigh, thank you so much for a very well written post that includes such valuable dialogue on a very important topic. thank you for your links and for your time to put this together for our benefit. This is information we can all benefit from and is still so limited in circulation.


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