It is painful to think of a loved one dying, but it is likely that you have thought about your own death, especially with COVID-19 having affected so many.
I started thinking about my own death when I was very young. My mom was a tough single mother, and she didn’t shy away from discussing the hard issues, like death. Someone “dying” or “passing away,” didn’t really mean anything to my childhood naivety. My favorite movie as a child was “The Lion King,” and it was a powerful tool my mom used to help me understand the concept of death. “Completed their circle of life,” was the powerful phrase I understood. The scene where Simba, shaking his dad and crying out for him to wake up, held enough gravitas for me to know that when someone had completed their circle of life, it meant they had died.
I was nine and had been to more funerals than my age. It wasn’t weird; it just was.
A favorite quote of mine is by Katherine Sleeman, a Palliative Medicine Registrar at the Cicely Saunders Institute. When she spoke at the Imagining the Future of Medicine event, she urged the audience to reevaluate how we deal with death (17:46):
“We prepare for the arrival of a new baby, we plan for it, we think about what we are going to buy and what we are going to call the new baby. It is part of our daily life, our conversation. Why do we not prepare for our death in the same way? I would like everyone to have a good death but we can’t achieve that unless we as a society stop whispering and start talking about it.”
In the midst of the greatest pandemic since 1918, many of us have confronted death more in the past year than we previously had in our lives. Even before the pandemic, I frequently spoke to friends and family about dying and what they wished to have done to their bodies after death.
“What do you want to happen to your body after you die?” It is a common question I discuss with my friends when on a long drive or over a shared meal. It usually catches them off guard, but answers are given quickly and freely, yearning to be said aloud. Most of us have thought of our own death and what our plans are for after death, yet rarely are they discussed with anyone. Why not?
As a society in the new age of medicine, we know that modern medicine is making wonderful strides; however, it has not yet come up with an Elixir of Life. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
I would like everyone to have a good death but we can’t achieve that unless we as a society stop whispering and start talking about it. —Dr. Katherine Sleeman, NIHR Clinician Scientist
Death is an unspoken future, one that isn’t normally brought up over a meal with friends or a family event. Yet it is normal for us to think of our own demise, even when we fear it. The courage it takes to get out any question regarding death often feels like a taboo type of courage. Once you gather your courage and ask about death, you may be faced with an immediate, “Why are you asking me that?”. It is not from anger, but from shock; allow them a moment to gather their own courage.
A year ago I asked my aunt whether she and my uncle had discussed their will with my cousin, also an only child. They hadn’t, but they did have plans on what they wanted to gift me with at the end of their life. It was a special moment to know that I was to receive a gift- a piece of furniture that would benefit me enormously when it came to sewing. I gathered my courage, thanked my aunt for the gesture, and politely declined. I knew I would be receiving the same furniture item from my mom and that I would be burdened with the emotional guilt of deciding what to do with a second one. I suggested that instead, she start some treasured memories with her eldest grandchild, and bequeath it to her. It was a peaceful moment and one I am proud to have discussed with honesty. There were no hard feelings, and it set both of our minds at ease to know that the item in question would be valued after death.
Inheritance items aren’t necessarily high on the list of important issues to discuss if you don’t own much, but it can be a great way to start the conversation, as the difficult topics can be daunting. Brian Carpenter, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. In an interview with Carpenter by Audrey Hamilton, host of Speaking of Psychology, a podcast produced by the American Psychological Association, Carpenter states the crucial issues that need to be discussed — difficult or not.
“…that includes thinking about where they want to live; what kinds of housing they might like to have toward the end of their life; where they might like to be if they have serious illness or might be approaching the end of their life — would they prefer to be at home, in a hospital, some other residential setting — and there are benefits and drawbacks to all of those options. So housing is one thing that’s important for people to think about. Medical care obviously is another one. What kinds of medical care do people want? And what kinds of medical care do people think they might not want as they become more sick.”
Thinking about a loved one dying before their time is painful, talking about it channels a sense of calm and peaceful understanding.
Memories about death make people feel uncertain because death is unpredictable, which then raises the anxiety related to death. When people experience death anxiety, then negative effects arise in the form of fear, threat, unease, and discomfort. Death is rarely predictable, and planning to have the “death talk,” at the last minute isn’t having a plan, it’s procrastinating the inevitable. Waiting to have it, or choosing not to discuss it can be detrimental to the mental health of you and your loved ones when one of you finds yourself in a position where you have to make a choice that you don’t know is right.
Think about all the moments when you’ve had to make a difficult decision for yourself, now think about trying to make an even more difficult decision for someone else. Someone who is dying. Someone who is dead. Someone you love. A decision that will impact the last few moments of their life, a decision that will be permanent after death. This decision will have to be made without having any means of communicating with them. The loved one who no longer recognizes you, who is no longer in a stable frame of mind.
If you’re in the prime of your life, talk about death. If you are nearing an age where you have accepted that time is inevitable, talk about death. If you have children, pets, friends, talk about death.
If you’re in the prime of your life, talk about death. If you are nearing an age where you have accepted that time is inevitable, talk about death. If you have children, pets, friends, talk about death. Talk about your plans for your body. Talk about who should receive those treasured items of yours. Talk about who should be notified first, whether you want to be revived, how often you want to be visited if you need to be placed in a home.
There is only one formulaic strategy on the best time to discuss death — while you’re still alive. If you’re reading this article, you’re alive, so the time is now.
The strength my mom showed me as a young child has allowed me, my family members, and my close friends to live fuller lives — precisely because we discuss death with honesty. We have peace of mind because we know our wishes for death. We have utilized websites that offer free wills (albeit did take extra prodding). If you want to take it up a notch, write your loved one their eulogy and say it to them. Morbid? Not at all. Why wait for them to be dead to talk about all the great stories? To thank them for all the times they helped you? To give them the best love letter they could ever receive? The one that tells them all about why their life has been meaningful to you.
The-year-that-shall-not-be-named had enough hardships. In 2021, give yourself and your loved ones some peace. Talk about death.