Is it really possible to have an end of life conversation? Here’s a story to illustrate that, yes, it very definitely is!
Berenice looked horrified. In the group I was running, she was coming to terms with the idea that she really needed to speak to her parents about the fact they were coming towards the end of their lives. She had no idea whether they even had a will, let alone anything else.
“I can’t say anything to them! It’ll seem like I want them to die!’ she wailed, her face screwed up as she agonised about the situation.
In the group that day, we talked more about this challenge, and Berenice left feeling scared but clearer about what to do about the situation. She returned the following week, glowing.
“I did it! I did it!” she exploded as she walked into the room. “And guess what? They were relieved! In fact, they had been wondering how to mention this to me! We all laughed when we discovered that, sighed with relief, and then were able to get on with discussing some of the practicalities.”
Revealing the Elephant in the Room
This scenario is not unusual, once someone has taken the plunge and opened up the conversation. But over the years, the medical establishment and the funeral industry have taken over what was once a very tender, intimate, and family-based procedure, as bodies were laid out in the front room and relatives and friends came to pay their respects.
Not that this is necessarily ‘bad’ at all – but it has rendered us, the general public, as amateurs in the death arena. We are ignorant. Most of us have never seen a dead body, not even when we reach middle age.
However, we are forced to face up to it as our grandparents, parents and friends reach a time when it is obvious they are coming towards the end. Or we have a brush with death ourselves, in the form of a friend’s terminal diagnosis, or perhaps a sudden accident in the family.
And yet this is normal – life cannot occur without death and vice versa. So how do we bring death out of the closet and into our lives, without the terror? We need to start talking about it again.
Here are some pointers to starting a conversation, and maintaining it, in a world that is afraid of the one thing that statistics say will happen to 100% of us.
What do you need to reflect on before you can even consider having a conversation? Just take a few moments to think about someone with whom you would like to speak on the subject of end of life. There may be more than one person, just choose one for now.
Put yourself in their shoes so you can be as sensitive as possible. Then think about what you consider important about dying, death, and grief and what you might want to share.
It will be different for different people. For instance, you or a loved one may be terminally ill; you might just feel strongly about preparing in advance, or be a proponent of assisted dying.
You might have recently lost someone very close to you, or you might work in a related field. You might just be the kind of person who knows that what we fear, but then face up to, can bring a kind of liberation that is not only unexpected, but also very freeing.
Once you’ve identified a person, the next thing is to consider when and where would be a good time to talk with them.
Sometimes when you’re walking alongside one another it’s easier to talk about this kind of thing than it is in a face-to-face situation, so choosing your moment on a walk might work for you. If you are sitting around a table, it could be over a cup of tea.
One of my Before I Go Method course participants invited all her adult children over for Sunday lunch one day with the express purpose of talking about this. They had a family business together, so it was doubly important for them. It worked really well – the scene had been set, everyone came knowing this was the focus of the meal, and therefore were prepared for it.
Sometimes doing something else i.e., walking, eating, creating something together, can make it much easier to talk about a challenging matter.
While normally eye contact is a beneficial thing in any conversation, in this one, it can be more easily done when your eyes only meet occasionally, and on purpose.
Start the Conversation
How do you start such a conversation? There are lots of ways, but it’s all about context. If someone in the area where you live has recently died, that can provide an opener. If you went to a funeral, or are going to a funeral, that can also provide a starting point.
Even a celebrity dying can make a conversation about death feel appropriate. For instance, when a famous person dies suddenly, it is quite acceptable to say, “That makes me think about what I would do in that situation,” and then you lead on from there.
When Aretha Franklin died without having left a will, it would have been entirely normal to ask someone else if they had a will, and if not, why not, or how they had gone about it.
Conversations don’t have to be just with family members; you can speak with friends, work colleagues, church companions, group members or anyone at all. Remember you never know how people are going to react until you open the door on the subject.
Keep an open heart even if the initial response is not what you would prefer. And once you’ve started, remember to listen!
Think of someone with whom you would like to have this kind of conversation. What might you say to them and when could you do that? What’s stopping you? Please share in the comments below.
And if you want more information about this, there is a whole chapter in my book, Before I Go, about how to have a conversation about end of life.