Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Why and How We All Need to Talk About Death More

As we approach halloween, images connected to Día de los Muertos are everywhere. But Día de los Muertos is incredibly different from halloween. It’s an ancient festival, still flourishing, that shows how Mexicans recognise death as a natural part of the human cycle. The theme is death - but the tone is celebratory and joyous, remembering and respecting lost relatives.

This is an oxymoron for the British. We find it incredibly hard to talk about death. A recent major survey by Co-op Funeralcare showed that 18 million people are uncomfortable discussing death, but by age 20 most of us will have suffered a bereavement of someone close.

There are many reasons why we can all benefit from open discussions about dying. It’s a fundamental part of human life. Recognising its impact on others, understanding and preparing for it can only save stress and help us cope better when difficult times occur. So what is at the root of our reluctance to talk and how can we pave the way to a more open, less fearful dialogue?

Start with the practicalities
Talking about dying before you need to is important. Indeed, sometimes facing the practical aspects can be a good place to start. Age UK have reported that 40% of people don’t know their loved ones’ wishes around dying. A good way to address this is to put a funeral plan in place. It allows people to take control, make informed choices and set these out for their families to understand. You also take away the financial burden from others. The Funeral Planning Authority registers reputable firms with the best practices who can advise you through the process.

Similarly, putting together a will doesn’t have to be a morbid affair. It’s simply about making sure things will be as you want them and that the people around you are supported in the best ways. Check out the government advice on making a will. These practical steps help protect grieving family and take away one less burden in difficult times.  Sharing details of funeral plans and wills does not mean you need to imagine people actually dying. Instead by broaching a tricky subject you show them you respect their wishes and value their life.

Understanding our avoidance
It’s useful to understand where our avoidance to talk about death comes from. There are many possible reasons. Dying Matters explore some of these and give advice on how to start conversations. A key reason for avoidance is denial. There’s an element in our thinking that says if something isn’t being discussed it won’t happen. But losing someone close is likely to effect us all at some point. If we wish to prevent the pressure and stress of dealing with it unknown and unprepared, we need to address the subject earlier.

Of course it’s the British way to be reserved and not to pry into other people’s personal feelings. Combine this with the fear of our own mortality and we have more and more reasons to avoid the topic. And of course if someone we know is dying or grieving, we can be struck with the worry of saying the wrong thing. But all of these reasons and reactions are detrimental to ourselves and others in the long run.

Why its important to talk about death
Fears and taboos stop us talking about death. But not talking makes the fear grow. Opening up allows people to share their fears and concerns, to be honest and to make decisions. It helps us all to better meet the needs of the person dying and those around them.

Adults find the subject difficult enough and they often think they are protecting children by keeping it from them. But if children are aware of experiences of loss and the related feelings, it can help them to deal with and understand more when they encounter it themselves. If children can talk about it now then future generations may break away from the taboos.

How to talk about death
How to talk about death will depend on the situation - whether you are just looking at the practicalities, discussing new concepts with children or facing the serious illness or death of someone close. But we should recognise not all of these conversations have to undertaken with sadness. Humour can often be an important part of the process.

Be honest, be respectful. Laugh, cry - whatever it takes. Be sure you are really listening to others, not just talking, and don’t be scared of silence. In summary, opening up to difficult conversations can only help us become better communicators. And communicating, being part of social groups, communities and sharing stories and emotions is a massive part of what it is to be human.

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