This holiday season, we need to stop pretending the pandemic doesn't exist and people aren't dying

  • In America right now there is an aura of disregard about the pandemic which is harming vulnerable populations. 
  • Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving, I attended a death cafe — an open space to discuss death and grief. 
  • We need spaces like this to reflect and talk about the death all around us. While visiting these death cafes, I've found myself joined in solace and camaraderie with an understanding of how important it is to have these difficult conversations with our peers.
  • Jennifer Stavros is a journalist based in Los Angeles with a passion for exploring the vibrant nuances of life, death, politics, art, tech, advocacy, and pop culture. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Ah, America during the holidays. It's a time for joy, warmth, and celebrating with loved ones. The Macy's Day parade, while limited in size this year, was a welcomed respite for many Americans amidst the trashcan fire of tragedy, pain, and isolation brought on by the pandemic. 

Sadly America's seemingly careless and apathetic candor during this holiday season is appalling to folks like me and others who pay active attention to one area of specific delicacy: the death positive and grief aware community.

While many Americans across the country gathered around their televisions to cheer on a parade and make believe that the pandemic doesn't exist, individuals like me participated in discussions about the reality of the deaths happening around the world in spaces such as death cafes. 

What are death cafes?

Death cafes are spaces to openly have discussions about death. While these cafes originated in Europe, they have spread across the world as part of a progressive death positive movement to make discussions about death less taboo. I've personally attended both physical and digital death cafes in multiple locations in the US, Europe and Australia. 

The apathy of "celebrating" the mass genocide of indigenous people on the American holiday known as Thanksgiving seemed like a good day to attend a cafe. Each cafe is unique and follows its own cadence. No two cafes are alike. They are unstructured and are independently hosted with the same mission: "to increase awareness of death with a view of helping people make the most of their (finite) lives." 

Incidentally, due to the pandemic, cafes and other similar events are going digital, making it easier than ever to join in conversations about death. So why aren't more people having these important conversations?

As I scrolled through Facebook and Twitter over the Thanksgiving holiday, I saw countless celebrations, excuses for the parade, and pictures of folks gathering and cheering despite the precautions and lockdowns as COVID-19 cases increase across the country. 

There is an aura of disregard about the pandemic. 

This disregard is greatly affecting the most vulnerable populations. Here in Los Angeles, folks who were having housing issues and seeking refuge in open spaces were evicted from housing at Caltrans owned properties followed by our mayor attempting to close a COVID-19 testing facility so that the film "He's All That" could have priority over our sick and dying neighbors. 

Why are Americans ambivalent, detached, and blatantly not willing to wake up to the reality of the grief and death that is happening all around us? How is this not a time to be more aware and careful about grief and desolation? Do those dying not matter? With death positive spaces going digital, including Los Angeles' annual funeral for the unclaimed — an event which took place digitally for the first time since its inception over 100 years ago — I want to believe that there are some folks who hold space for the dead.

Folks might say I'm being a downer, but pardon me for not feeling hyped about things when folks are flaunting decorations and pretending like there aren't bodies of loved ones being loaded in trailers due to a pandemic that some don't even want to acknowledge exists in the first place. 

Pardon me for not jumping up and down for folks whose religion matters to them more than the possibility of infecting populations in and adjacent to their religious activities. 

Pardon me for being a holiday realist and wanting better than to prepare to mourn for more lives lost and join those who have lost their loved ones already because of the apathy and disregard of others during this global pandemic.

I'm embarrassed to be an American right now. This isn't the time to play pretend games. It's time to hunker down and get serious already. How many lives need to be lost before more people care enough for this to be addressed properly?

We need spaces to talk about what's going on

My attendance at two death cafes on Thanksgiving was sobering. The reactions to our celebrations in the US were met with a gaping pause by the British communities I participated in discussion with. Among this group, there was heightened empathy for the communities that are being affected by the pandemic and jaw-dropping shock at the American way of denying and celebrating. 

While visiting these death cafes throughout the pandemic, I've found myself joined in solace and camaraderie with an understanding of how important it is to have these difficult conversations with our peers. There is a warmth present within these communities and others like them which offer a way to process our collected grief and feelings about the death around us. 

The American dream is chugging on pretending like this isn't a time to reflect. We need to pause. We need to have warm moments soaked in pain, community, beauty, and everything in between. That's the warmth I want to start seeing this season. 

I understand that folks might think I'm being a Grinch during the holidays. I understand the desire for something sparkly, dazzling — anything to distract from the darkness associated with death. We can still do that while keeping space for the dead. It can be something as simple as posting a message of camaraderie on your window for folks walking by your decorated home, or a web call to share moments digitally with loved ones you can't physically be with and talking with them about the death that is happening.

Death should not be a taboo conversation. If anything, the pandemic should have lifted that taboo. The holidays aren't an excuse to act like the virus isn't present and actively killing family, friends, and loved ones across the world. Sorry, but you don't get a pass on it because of some date on a calendar. You certainly don't get a pass as the numbers of deaths and cases are once again rising.

Dear America, the death positive community humbly requests that you take the time to have these conversations now. We have the opportunity in front of us to take this time of COVID and the holiday spirit to incite a stronger, more inclusive, and more open safe space to have these hard conversations so maybe we can all be a bit more prepared when faced with death. Isn't that the perfect Christmas gift to give your neighbors this season? Maybe it should be.

Jennifer Stavros is a journalist based in Los Angeles with a passion for exploring the vibrant nuances of life, death, politics, art, tech, advocacy, and pop culture. 

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