One thing that amazed me when first I came to this country was the reluctance to talk about dying. Growing up in a developing country and working in the health sector, death has been a part of my life both personally and professionally. Even people who seem to be okay talking about death in general, are reluctant to put things in place for their own death. The taboo on discussions about preparing for death not only adds to the suffering of the bereaved but stops all of us living life to the full. By refusing to contemplate the fragility of our existence, we don’t enjoy it or protect it. As Joni Mitchell song “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. By refusing to prepare for death, we lose the chance to build a legacy and are often caught unawares.
The picnic seats set in the middle of St Andrew’s Cemetary in Aysgarth in spring started me thinking about how preparing for death can actually help us live a more meaningful life, and how I could help people start talking about it.
Why are so few people preparing for death?
Dying Matters found that although over sixty percent of people said they were happy talking about death, only
35% of adults said they had made a will
30% had let someone know their funeral wishes
7% had written down wishes or preferences about the care they would want if they couldn’t make decisions
25% had asked a family member about their end of life wishes
33% registered to be an organ donor
It seems that the more safe and secure people are, the more they resistant they are to talking about death. We control so much of our lives that we forget that our control is so very fragile. Yet by refusing to talk or think about death, we not only risk adding to the suffering of those we leave behind, but we also lose the chance of living life to the full.
Thinking of winter in spring
Spring is usually a time when we think of new life and hope. Remembering the dark cold days of winter help us enjoy the spring more. In Britain, the sheer uncertainty of the weather means we make the most of any sunshine or good weather. So being aware of the fragility of life opens your eyes to its beauty and encourages you to plunge into the experience. Try this excellent exercise from Rick Hanson to help you “embrace the fragility of life“.
Benefits from thinking about death
To get my clients to focus on what is important in their lives, I ask them to imagine attending their own funeral. Then I ask, what would you like people to say about you? That really focuses the mind. Do you want to be remembered for your work, as a loving parent, a dutiful child, a caring spouse, someone who lights up a room? If so, start behaving in the way that will give that outcome.
Do you want your family to be able to cope with out you? Our role as parents is to make sure our children have the resilience to thrive without us. What skills and knowledge do you need to pass on now? Do you need to tell untold stories? What plans need to be put in place? Don’t leave things undone.
Thinking about death makes us more mindful of today and what needs to be done. Dying Matters Awareness Week (starts 8 May in 2017) is a great time to start preparing for death and appreciating life.
Take it in stages–don’t push yourself or others to talk about death if they don’t want to. People need to feel safe and comfortable. Sometimes it is easier to talk first to professionals rather than to close family. You may wish to talk to your solicitor or financial adviser about wills and powers of attorney. Be sure to choose a reputable specialist. Ask for recommendations, and get quotes. You may want to arrange and pay for a funeral in advance, again take your time. What about passwords and online information? Insurance, bills, important documents?
Not sure where to start? I volunteer on a program called Everything in Place, run by St Cuthbert’s Hospice in Durham. A relaxed and even enjoyable series of talks (or one to one sessions) helps people get things sorted. Other hospices will have similar initiatives. Joincake is an easy, online solution to get you started thinking about end of life preferences and sharing them if you would rather not talk to someone face to face.
Give me a call if you would like to start talking about death.