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In the Western world, we are not very good at talking about death. It’s almost as if it has become a taboo subject. One of the ways we demonstrate our uncomfortableness on this subject is to use euphemisms for death. They do have their place; it’s much better people talk about this subject in euphemisms than not talk about it at all, and sometimes it is just plain sensitive to use a euphemism instead of the bluntness of telling it like it is.
Euphemisms come from all sorts of sources, here’s just a few of them:
- Departing, giving up the ghost, loosening the silver cord – the Bible
- Take the ferry – Greek mythology
- Pay one’s debt to nature – Latin
- Slip one’s cable – from the world of shipping
- Kick the bucket – comes from the livestock industry
- Conk, cop it, falling a victim, shedding one’s blood, pushing up the daisies – originated during wartime
Notice the language used the next time someone you know dies. Pay attention to what is being said, and how you feel about it. Are you using a euphemism to avoid the subject? Make a conscious choice to use words that suit you, the person you are referring to, and the situation. In this article, you’ll find several different ways to introduce (and keep on talking about) a subject most people find challenging, even at the best of times.
Talking with Doctors and Medical Professionals
‘It is crucial!’ Many people have asked me whether it is okay to speak to their doctor about their end of life plans, and this is what I say. Some have worries they will be wasting the doctor’s time. If that is you, then please know it is more of a waste of doctors and nurses time when they don’t know what you want.
Book a double appointment, let the receptionist know what you want to discuss at the appointment, or ask for extra time in advance, and take along any preparatory work you have done, and a list of question. If you have nothing wrong with you, preface your conversation opener with something like ‘I know I’m not ill, but I saw my friend/relative die recently in circumstances that would not have been what I wanted, so I thought I had better do something about it now, as none of us know just when we will die.’ Make sure that at least this doctor and the rest in the team know what you want.
For those outside the UK or who have to pay for their medical treatment for any reason, ask for any protocol they have about this kind of appointment. Remember, money spent now may well save you even more money later.
Another concern is that doctors may themselves feel uncomfortable about talking about dying, especially as their job is to make people better. This is important, because medical professionals are trained to keep us alive and healthy. In future years, medical training may well include more training in palliative and end of life care but for now, it is safer to assume that they will be trained to do what they are required to do legally, which is to provide life-sustaining treatment for as long as is necessary or possible, given the individual situation of the patient.
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Talking About Death
Why don’t people want to talk about death? There are many reasons for this behaviour, such as:
- They think if they do, it will happen to them quicker
- It makes them realize it will happen to them one day
- It feels horrible/scary/intimidating/perplexing/upsetting/ – any other feeling word you want to use
So if you are going to introduce this topic, it will take some thinking about beforehand. You yourself may not subscribe to any of these reasons above, but you never know how other people might feel. So here are three pointers from the Before I Go course in How To Talk About Dying, Death or Grief:
- Prepare in Advance
What do you need to reflect on before you can even think of 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, so think about it separately for each one.
Put yourself in their shoes, so you can be as sensitive as possible. Then think about what is important for you about dying, death and grief that you might want to share, and why that is important for you. It might 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. 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 coffee, tea, and cake, as in a Death Cafe. It could be over a meal; maybe you even set up a meal with the purpose of talking about this.
One of the Before I Go 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.
“After my aunt died, about six months later I said to my son, ‘Remember when Auntie Jeannie died, I was thinking about it the other day and what I realized was she died quite well. It was relatively easy for her. I was thinking how to make it easier for me, when it’s my time, and one of the things that would make it easier would be if you’d help me to organize some administrative things now. Would that be okay?’ He was a bit taken aback at first, but he knew what I meant about Auntie Jeannie, and agreed to help if he could. I was so glad I had raised the subject, it brought me relief just doing that.”
— Susanne, England
Remember that often 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.
Think about where would be a good place for this conversation – a noisy restaurant might not be ideal. Also think about what are the most important things you want to say. If you don’t know these in advance, then you may very well miss the opportunity.
- Start the Conversation
How do you start such a conversation? Some suggestions are below, but use your individual situations. 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 lead on from there.
- Since X died, I’ve been thinking about life and death a lot. How do you feel about it?
- What do you think happens after you die?
- Do you know what you want for your funeral?
- What do you think a ‘good’ death might look like?
- I’d love your help with something...
- I’d love to talk something through with you; can you be my sounding board?
- I know you’ve had some health concerns recently, how has it affected what you think about living a long life?
- I have some legal matters to sort out, and I need to find a power of attorney. Would you be willing to talk about this with me?
- I need to think about my future and I also need someone to help me just talk it through. Would you be willing to do that?
- I’ve been answering some questions about how I want my end of life to be; I’d like you to see my answers and I’m wondering what your answers would be?
- Are there any particular milestones you would like to meet? (E.g., an 80th birthday, a grandchild’s graduation.… This is especially useful if the person is terminally ill.)
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.
- Qualities Needed while Having a Conversation
PATIENCE: The Before I Go (BIG) conversation is indeed a big one! Often, time is needed to think, to reflect and to ponder the impact of end of life matters on oneself, but also on others. If you are used to thinking about these matters, be aware that those you are wanting to speak to may never have thought about them. So it is an ongoing conversation, and you don’t have to cover everything in one go. That’s probably impossible, anyway.
“My husband wouldn’t talk to me about anything; I’ve had such a hard time over the years trying to have these kind of conversations with him. He somehow just never had the time, interestingly. But when I had to do the homework set in the Before I Go class, I simply told him my homework was, ‘Have a conversation with a close family member,’ and he agreed to do it. We ended up having an hour and a half of really good, even amusing, conversation about what we were going to do. This was particularly important as we have a blended family, which makes it all the more complicated.”
— Patty, USA
LISTENING: While you’re having the conversation, remember to listen. Really listen, not just paying apparent attention, while what you are doing is listening to the contents of your own mind. Keep focused on being curious, instead of criticizing or being judgmental. That means keeping an open mind to what you hear, and allowing the other person space to have their opinion – and being prepared to learn, and perhaps change your own mind. Think of the word ‘curiosity’ - it has an openness and interested tone to it. When you are judgmental you don’t have that openness, because you’ve put the blinkers on and you’re only looking right ahead with whatever it is that you’re thinking of, and not being interested in anything else.
When that happens, what is heard may be perceived as a threat and you often can’t help but open your mouth and out come blaming, defensive words or criticism of the other person or of the situation. That’s why I’m saying come to this in an open-hearted way where you don’t take things personally. The best way to do that is simply to be curious, as if you were doing research for a project to which you’re not attached.
OPENNESS: With these kinds of conversations, you need to be honest, open, and vulnerable yourself. This is one reason why preparation in advance is so important. If you are willing to be and feel vulnerable, you create safe conditions and space for others to be so as well. Remember a saying that was a favourite of my husband’s: ‘In your vulnerability lies your strength.’
All this means you have to be honest with yourself of course, so do the preparation – answer the questions in this Guide, and begin to demonstrate by example how you would like those around you to be.
To help you with this, you can download a free Before I Go Conversation Starter Kit here: www.beforeigosolutions.com/guidepdf.
©2018 by Jane Duncan Rogers. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission from the book: Before I Go.
Publisher, Findhorn Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Intl.
Before I Go: The Essential Guide to Creating a Good End of Life Plan
by Jane Duncan Rogers
Many people say “I wish I had known what they wanted” when their loved one has died. Too often, a person’s wishes for end-of-life care, and for after they have gone, have not been recorded. With this valuable guide, you can now begin to do this for yourself, so your relatives will be able to honor your wishes more easily, saving them unnecessary stress and upset at a potentially intense time. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
For more info or to order this book, click here. Also available as a Kindle edition.
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About the Author
Jane Duncan Rogers is an award-winning life and death coach who helps people prepare well for a good end of life. Having been in the field of psychotherapy and personal growth for 25 years, she is founder of Before I Go Solutions, dedicated to educating people about dying, death, and grief. Jane lives within the Findhorn community in Scotland, UK. Visit her website at https://beforeigosolutions.com/