Death is something we don’t routinely talk about.
Our understanding of death changes as we grow. As a child we’re fairly open about it. We have grand ideas of our loved ones (normally pets or worms) going to a ‘happy place’ or going on ‘holiday’. Death doesn’t seem particularly scary to us, it’s just a part of life.
As we grow, our understanding grows too. We begin to learn that death means our loved one is never coming back, and start to respond to that. Some of us might then believe in reincarnation. Others hold on to ideas of heaven or an afterlife. Whatever we believe, somewhere along the line most of us learn that death is not something that’s widely talked about, and it becomes something scary and unknown.
Whether we’re scared or not, and whatever we believe, one of the few certainties in life is death; it’s going to happen to all of us at some point. In our house we’ve tended to be fairly open about it – Mum was a palliative medicine consultant, so to ignore it would’ve been to ignore Mum’s job almost entirely – but even if it’s not something you want to discuss around the dinner table, it’s something we need to talk about.
Let’s start with the medical bits. Would you wish to be resuscitated? Would you want tube feeding if you reached the stage where you couldn’t feed yourself? Would you want your child to look after you when you became immobile, or would you rather be in a nursing home?
Moving on, what about immediately after death? Would you like to be cremated of buried? Would you like a traditional funeral or something a bit different? You can’t answer these questions once you’re unconscious, or dead. The worst thing for your family would be to have a conversation with a doctor about whether to resuscitate you (if needs be) in the night, and for them to have absolutely no idea of what you would want. It’s worth thinking about these questions not just for you, but also in the context of your loved ones.
You could even chat to those closest to you about what they believe happens after death. Is the finality of death simply too much to think about, or is it important to consider it fully? Perhaps you believe that death isn’t the end, that reincarnation or an afterlife makes sense to you. I often find this conversations a lot less morbid than you’d think, and you can learn a lot about someone from their responses, and the reasons behind those responses.
There are lots of scary things in life, and I think death is one of them. But I can’t think of anything much scarier than being asked what my Dad or either of my brothers would want in this situation, and having absolutely no idea. It would destroy me.
I’m so lucky that Mum and Dad had these conversations, because in February when Mum slipped into a coma, Dad was able to tell the medical staff exactly what she wanted. When Mum died, Dad knew not to try heavy CPR to buy her a few more painful hours. Knowing what Mum wanted has saved out family so much suffering, and has given us some peace of mind.
So maybe death isn’t something you really want to think about at the start of the New Year (let’s face it, there are more fun things to think about). Perhaps you think you’re not old enough to discuss it. Maybe it’s not the most exciting of topics to chat about over a few pints, or maybe it is, but either way I challenge you to talk about it. I don’t mind how you do it, or when; it could be tomorrow or in three months’ time. Maybe it will be a short, sweet conversation, or perhaps it opens up discussions you didn’t realise you needed to have.
For more information on talking about death, check out Dying Matters, a charity who aim to help people talk more openly about death, dying and bereavement.