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Boston Blatte

Raised in Boston, remade in Sweden

Archive for January, 2011

The culture of dying: Swedish v. N. American clashes

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

I just got home from Stockholms Sjukhem which is a hospice in central Stockholm.
E, the husband of a close friend, M, is expected to die during the night from liver failure as a complication of cancer. I can’t sleep.

I have been considering posting about this for several months because of the many cultural clashes and questions and misunderstandings and similarities of how dying and death mix between people from each side of the big pond (aka The Atlantic). I think back to the surreal moment just after M told me that there would be no more chemo treatments for E and I wondered if the carton of milk I was holding in the supermarket would outlast E. Gratefully E outlasted that milk by nearly 3 months.

We already tiptoe around the topic of death. No one truly feels at ease with it when it involves people you know, have eaten dinner with and been a part of your and your family’s life and there’s (thankfully) not many occasions to practice or discuss the shoulds or shouldn’ts of death and dying etiquette for family and friends.

I can even feel the clash through how my husband and I have viewed and view my role in this evolution of events. I want to be omni-present for M. I have brought them food, helped coordinate a fabulous extended network of volunteers to cook food (some of the volunteers don’t know E and M personally) started a Facebook page for friends and family of E and M where support, well wishes and requests for help can and have been posted cared for. My Swedish husband is always concerned that I could get in the way.

It’s understandable that as a non-family member I am probably not the person expected to be at the hospice on a night like tonight, but circumstances are complicated. M isn’t from Sweden and her closest network of relatives are not here. Her mother has arrived, but she is caring for the young children at their home. And so I was there, and yes, probably a bit in the way. Definitely by Swedish norms (and maybe even by N. American norms –but I don’t know, I have never lost anyone close to cancer.) I am comforted that M was grateful I was there. She has gone through most of this on her own with only very little help from her in-laws (which E didn’t think was odd –culture clash classic.)

It seems the N. American view is that friends, neighbors even unknown volunteers, pitch in to give a hand and the Swedish view is to keep a respectful distance –in other words, the polar opposite. I hope E’s Swedish family can accept the oddity of my/our actions and choices which go against what seems to be “right” the same way M is trying to accept that the actions and choices of E’s family which go against what seems to be “right to us Americans and Canadians.

I think the true clashes are yet to come with the planning of the funeral. In Sweden there are no wakes as we know them in the US. I wonder if M decided to organize one how it would be received. I plan to post about it since funerals are very different than what I have experienced in Boston.

NB. Please understand that as this is a very sensitive and personal experience I will simply delete any and all inappropriate or insensitive comments.

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