I’m pretty sure I’m going to stop being invited to social functions soon. People ask what I’m working on these days and inevitably the conversation turns to dying. The thing is, I’m really convinced that our Western end-of-life experience could be better, and I feel passionate about the fact that being able to talk about it is the first step in getting there.
Here are three reasons why I think we need to talk about dying:
Thinking about death can be freeing in a way. After doing quite a bit of flying in my life, I inexplicably developed a fear of air travel in my early 30s. It got to the point where I had near-panic attacks boarding a plane, and I even took the train instead of flying. After several years I finally was in the air on the way to Florida, experiencing sweating palms and a racing heart, when I thought, “Okay, what are you afraid of? What’s the WORST thing that can happen?” The answer was, “I could die.” Well, okay then. I started thinking about all the things I’ve done in my life and all the people I’ve loved, and instead of feeling scared or sad, I just felt grateful. Problem solved. To this day, when I fly I spend takeoff and landing reciting a list in my head of people and experiences that have brought me joy.
When my daughter was little we talked about dying at the dinner table sometimes, generally in the context of a friend or relative who was dying or had died. She would sometimes say, “This makes me too sad,” so I used it as an opportunity to talk about the fact that everyone dies, and that while we can certainly miss the person who died, it doesn’t help to not talk about it. Over the years we had several older friends of the family die peacefully in their sleep, and we talked about how lucky they were to have no pain in the end, what rich wonderful lives they had had, and what we remembered about them. We have also experienced some tragic deaths of younger people, including my daughter’s first grade PE teacher who committed suicide, and we talked about those too. I let her see my grief and let her express her own, but we always tried to end those conversations by thinking about something we loved about the person.
Oddly, talking about death makes me more aware of how I spend my time today. I know too many people who died suddenly, and it makes me think about my life in the context of how I’d feel if this was the last time I had on earth. I’d like to say that daily I reach out to people and tell them I love them, or that I work to solve global problems at every opportunity, but that would be a stretch. I do try to be more appreciative of the good friends in my life, of the beautiful place I live, and of how lucky I am to be in a happy relationship. I also just pause occasionally, enjoy the cat on my lap, watch the sunlight filtering through the steam of my tea, and am grateful for the life I have today.