Afterthoughts

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How to Talk About Death & Dying

Why is it that we don’t talk about death and dying? How come that talking about death makes most of us at least slightly uncomfortable? And what are we missing out on in life by avoiding conversations about death and dying? 

In 2020, over 695,800 people died in the UK. That is an average of 79 people dying every single hour. A survey commissioned by SafeHands Funeral Plans found that it was mainly due to COVID 19, though, that people in the UK started becoming more aware of their health and mortality. In March 2020, the Google search for the word “death” rose to 60,000 – compared to only 22,000 search queries the year before. Seeing people suffer from Coronavirus seems to have made Brits more willing to talk about death than we were a few years ago.

On an intellectual level, we understand that there is no life without death. We know that every single person dear to us will eventually die and that we have to face the same fate one day. However, most people tend to emphasise “one day”. After all, the average life expectancy in the UK has increased a whopping 65% within the last 100 years and all those who were born in 2020 have now good chances of living to the age of 81. That is plenty of time to plan and make arrangements for our graduation, our career, the next holiday, our wedding, the birth of our child(ren), our dream house, the bucket list for our retirement and every small and major life event in-between – except for death.

In this blog, we are going to explore how making end of life part of life and having conversations about death and dying can… 

  • enrich our lives
  • help us on our quest to live life to the fullest 
  • and be empowering in ways you might not have considered before.

Apart from learning about the benefits of talking about and planning for your own or someone else’s death, you will find practical advice on how to encourage or allow someone else to talk about the end of life, how to start a conversation about dying, the topics you do want to cover when you talk about the end of life with your loved ones or a doctor and how to talk to kids about death. As a bonus, we included a YouTube video in which leading psychologist Dr David Lewis explains the importance of planning for the end of life, based on decades of experience working with people who are struggling with bereavement.

“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen

Why is it important to talk about death & dying? – The benefits:

Death is the elephant in the room that we call ‘life’. It didn’t use to be this way: 150 – 200 years ago, death was very much part of everyday life. Nowadays, we, as a society, direct our attention as far away from our own mortality as we can. We are giving death a wide berth. The focus is on staying young and fit and healthy. Yet, it is precisely the fact that our time here on Earth is limited which makes life so very precious. Allowing ourselves to be very consciously aware of this can motivate us to make the most of every day and live life to the fullest.

When Mark Dolan from Talk Radio had leading psychologist Dr David Lewis on his show to talk about death, he asked him: “Is it better to live your life pretending that death is not a thing and hopefully it will just come very unexpectedly and quickly and be out of the way before you had a chance to think about it or is death something we should live with on a daily basis – as a kind of philosophical principle?” Based on decades of experience of working with clients from all walks of life, Lewis explained, “As a therapist, I certainly think it’s much better to talk with your loved ones about it [death]. I think some people don’t do this because they’re afraid that somehow if they talk about it, they’re going to bring it about. It’s kind of a superstitious belief. […] I think, one of the things you need to do – although it is probably going to be a painful discussion to have – is actually ask one another, if you are in a relationship, what your partner wants. Because when you suffer the loss, bereavement is so overwhelming… it’s said to be the highest level of stress anybody can ever experience. In my experience of helping people with bereavement problems, that’s certainly true. […] So, I think, the more planning you can do, the easier that task list becomes.”

Dr David Lewis’s View on Talking about Death

Other reasons why we avoid talking about and denying the reality of death are the fear of the unknown as well as the worry that we might upset or offend someone we love and care about if we bring up the topic. While not knowing when we will have to face death – we might live to an old age or we might die in a freak accident tomorrow – is overall a blessing, it also means uncertainty. And it very much depends on the individual how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with uncertainty and how we, therefore, choose to deal with it.

That being said, talking about death and dying and planning for the end of our own life as well as that of our loved ones 

  • can be a source of comfort and feel empowering – we might not know when or how we will be facing death, but we have spent time to make informed decisions about all the important aspects of the end of our life that lie within our power.
  • help us to feel seen, heard and connected – we all have the need to feel accepted and understood. Expressing our feelings as well as honestly and openly voicing our needs and wishes brings us closer together and allows us to connect on a deeper level. It also relieves our loved ones of having to guess what we would’ve wanted when the time comes.
  • help us accept the reality of death and frees up space in our heads and hearts to enjoy life to the fullest.
  • help us to feel at peace – we know that our affairs are in order, our wishes around what matters most to us about end-of-life care and/or death will be respected, and our loved ones will not have to face making complex decisions on our behalf during an emotionally distressing time
  • as well as help with the grieving process – because we know that our loved one got the end-of-life care and/or send-off they wanted.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” – Seneca

Talking about death and dying – how to start the conversation?

How do I start a conversation about death and dying? After all, 16 million Brits still consider “death” a taboo topic. Although a survey by Independent Age shows, that older people seem to be more open to discussing the end of life than those between 40 – 64. 

Please remember: There’s no right or wrong way to talk about death. Sometimes, the topic comes up naturally when we for example discuss a tragedy that was featured on the news or how the death of a famous person or maybe a pet impacted us. Books you’ve recently read as well as movies can be great conversation starters, too. Or we can ask questions like ‘If you were to become seriously ill, what kind of treatment or care would you like to receive?’, ‘What was it like when your partner/parent/relative died and what would you like to be different when your time has come?’, or ‘what are the things that matter most to you in regards to your funeral?’ If this feels too straightforward for you, you could start by telling someone about your own experiences and emotions around losing a loved one or caring for someone at the end of their life. Talking about your feelings, needs and wishes normalises talking about death and dying and can encourage others to open up as well.

It can also be helpful to explain why you want to talk about your own death – e.g. to enjoy life with the peace of mind that end of life planning provides and focus on living life to the fullest.

How to encourage someone else to talk about death and dying?

  • Create a safe and relaxed atmosphere without distractions
  • Let the other person know that you are open to talk about death and dying by asking open questions like ‘if you became really ill, what would be important to you?’ or maybe sharing your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences around the topic.
  • Your spiritual beliefs and views around what happens when we die or after death might differ – respect that.
  • We might feel inclined to use humour or try to say something really profound – if either happens naturally, great! Don’t try and force it, though. Simply showing up, sitting with someone, being present, open, honest and vulnerable can be very comforting and liberating in itself for the other person.

Some people find it easier to chat about death and dying with strangers. If you or your loved one feel this way, it might be worth checking out Death Cafe or contacting an End of Life Doula for help and support.

Things to talk about before death

There are the emotional and spiritual aspects of death and dying – and then there are the practicalities of dying. The following list gives you examples of the latter which you might want to discuss with your doctor or loved ones in advance:

  • Arrange care and support – where and how do you want to be cared for and supported if you get severely ill and can’t manage on your own anymore?
  • What are your preferences regarding personal hygiene?
  • What nutritional needs do you have and what diet would you like to follow/be kept on?
  • Who will make decisions for you when you are no longer capable of deciding for yourself?
  • Do you want to donate your organs?
  • How long do you want to stay on life-support if this becomes necessary?
  • Do you want to be cremated or buried?
  • Pre-plan your funeral – at least the aspects of it that are important to you – and maybe consider a prepaid funeral plan that allows you to pay for your funeral in advance.
  • Write your Will

How to talk to kids about death and dying?

Oftentimes, we try to shelter kids from the reality of death. We use euphemisms like “Our bunny has gone to sleep.” or “Grandpa passed away.” This leads to misunderstandings and confusion – the child might suddenly become afraid to go to bed at night out of fear they might not wake up again or get anxious when mummy and daddy leave the house because they might not come back. If we don’t help children to get to grips with the cycle of life, we leave it up to their wild imagination to form ideas and misconceptions about death.

After we have acknowledged that we can’t protect kids from death – leaves fall in autumn, plants die, so do pets and sometimes people dear to us even when we are still young – we can open up to their natural curiosity. Use opportunities when children ask questions about withering flowers or the dead mouse that the cat brought home to explain the cycle of life to them. By asking questions yourself (‘What do you think…?’), you can determine where the child is at in their understanding of what has happened. If they ask a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to admit that – you can try and find out together. Be as honest as you can and use clear and simple language that’s appropriate for the child’s age and level of experience. If your child asks “are you going to die?” instead of promising them that you won’t leave them, you could say “most people die when they are old.” It’s okay to let your kid see you grieve or cry – it helps them understand that it’s okay to be sad and show your feelings. Kids have a shorter attention span; therefore, having several small conversations about death and dying whenever the topic comes up can be easier than long chats. Feeling seen and heard and being taken seriously goes a long way for anyone – that very much includes children.

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