If there's one thing we can all agree on it’s that 2020 was a year that has made many of us more aware of our own mortality. It’s an inexact social indicator, but looking at trend information from Google, many thousands more people have been searching for information on ‘talking about death’ since the Coronavirus took hold in March 2020 than in the previous year.
Sadly, some searchers will be looking for advice on how best to talk about the death of a relative, friend or even a colleague. But others, prompted to consider end of life planning by current events are looking for information on how to talk about their own death and their own end of life planning.
Talking about death with loved ones is not easy. If it was, more people would share their end of life plans with their family. That doesn’t mean that people don’t want to talk more about death and dying.
The problem is death and dying are still a taboo for many people. Whether from a fear of death or from a fear of offending others by talking about it, a significant number of people are uncomfortable talking about death. But it is also clear that discussing our own death can have a huge impact on the end of our own life and on the lives of those left behind.
Talking about our end of life plans
This simple fact is at the heart of the charity Dying Matters’ mission to encourage everyone to talk more openly about death and dying. Much of the charity’s work is around helping people who are dying and their families deal with death. But they also want us to plan ahead long before we are ill - to think and talk about how we wish to be cared for at the end, and to make provisions for those left behind, from legal and financial matters to our funeral plans.
The ‘Talkabout’ campaign from Marie Curie, the support charity for people with terminal illness, has similar aims. The campaign was launched in 2019 with a warning that our reluctance to think or talk about dying and death means many of us feel unprepared when facing the end of life, for ourselves and our loved ones.
New research commissioned for the campaign found that not knowing someone’s final wishes, made it more difficult for those bereaved. One in five people surveyed were left feeling unsure if the funeral was what the person would have wanted. People also experienced family disagreements and confusion after the death of someone close to them when they didn’t know their wishes.
The research also showed that, although over 80% of people said they would be comfortable talking about their own end of life wishes, less than 40% had actually had that conversation and only 25% had made any preparations.
How to talk about end of life plans
The Marie Curie Talkabout campaign included a TV advert that played on euphemisms for death and dying to try to break the taboo and humour can make it easier to broach difficult subjects. And the charity offers a series of tips to make it easier to talk openly about your end of life plans with friends and family.
They advise starting small, talking more generally about memories and life plans as a way of easing into bigger conversations. They suggest committing to having this type of conversation with several people, the chances being that at least one will go deeper.
Making a Will is a very practical step to take in your end of life planning, but it is also a way to focus your thoughts on the future and a good trigger to talk to people about your final wishes. This is especially true if you are asking people to look after children, or even pets, if you die unexpectedly.
Many people have a superstitious fear of talking about death, worrying that talking about it may make it happen. This kind of magical thinking rests on the belief that superstitions give us some control over the most unpredictable aspects of life. In reality, talking about death and dying gives control to your loved ones when your time comes.
Making a bucket list can be fun, but it also helps you to think about what you want from life. And discussion of the ambitions on your list will lead to conversations around life and death which you can use to start deeper conversations about your end of life plans.
If you find it too hard to speak face to face about death and your own end of life plans, Marie Curie suggests going online and having the conversation virtually via social media. They recommend posting a question about death on Facebook, asking what people want for their final song for example.
The charity’s final tip is to listen. If you are keen to talk about your final wishes, there’s a strong chance that the person you are talking to wants to share their thoughts on the subject too. By making it clear that you are willing to have a conversation about death and dying, you will make an open discussion much more likely.
If you need more concrete help to have the death and dying conversation, Marie Curie sells packs of Conversation Cards designed to help you learn more about your family and friends and share your own wishes. With questions like ‘What’s the one place you’d like to visit before you die?’ and ‘What would you like to be remembered for?’ you can initiate discussions that you might otherwise avoid.