On Death and Dying: Stop Whispering and Start a Conversation

Location : Home Office

 By Michelle Seitzer, Seniors for Living

Last month, I shared this post, Hospice: An Underutilized Resource, Obscured by Misconceptions, in which I did a little bit of hospice care myth-busting and shared my personal experiences with end-of-life care. Here, I’d like to talk about the sensitive subject of death and dying.

Don’t Say the “D” Word

When we hear that someone is dying, why does it seem that everyone around us starts whispering or speaking in hushed tones in the corners of rooms?

Yes, we’ve come a long way since Dame Saunders, credited with founding the first hospice care agency, delivered a stirring lecture on end-of-life issues to students and faculty at Yale University in 1963. And yet, here we are in 2011, where hospice is still an underutilized resource, and death remains on the “do not discuss/bring up in conversation” list.

Talk about death too much, and you’re labeled as disturbed, morbid; think about death too much, and you may be categorized as suicidal.

Of course, there are healthy and unhealthy extremes, as with all things in life, and it’s important to find a balance when it comes to discussing death. But the extreme of not talking about it at all is just as dangerous as talking about it too much, if you ask me.

The fact is, we’re just not comfortable with talking about death and dying, which is probably why we defer to a whisper when it’s brought up for discussion. But there is nothing to be ashamed about. Dying is a natural process that we all will face at some point, and we need to make our wishes clear.

It’s Okay – and Necessary – to Talk About It

To make our wishes clear involves knowing our options, making decisions (and if you’re married, a parent, or part of any type of family unit, the decision you make has an impact on more than just you), and expressing our preferences and plans to those with a right to know.

Tell me: How could you go through this process without saying the “d” word?  You really can’t, so it’s best to just get comfortable with the subject. Having a conversation about death is something that far too many of us put off. I would venture to guess that we avoid the dialogue not because we haven’t thought about it (we all wrestle with our mortality), but because we just don’t want to be a downer.

That being said, don’t just bring it up at the dinner table unannounced, but look for opportunities for natural dialogue. Perhaps you and your spouse are attending a funeral for a friend. On the drive home, talk about what kind of funeral service you desire (a wake? closed vs. open casket? memorial service with many attendees, or intimate service with just your closest family and friends?).

Respecting Boundaries and Counteracting the Fear of Mortality

Another stigma around end-of-life issues is built around the idea that the dying person needs their space, needs absolute silence, needs to be left alone. “Don’t let the children visit Grandpa – we don’t want them to see or remember him like that,” say the well-meaning adults.

Quite the contrary, say experts at the Hospice Foundation of America (HFA): “Hospice staff believes that when family members (including children) experience the dying process in a caring environment, it helps counteract the fear of their own mortality and the mortality of their loved one.”

Certainly, there are times when the hospice recipient needs solitude or undisturbed rest. Recognize and respect the boundaries of your loved ones, but don’t abandon them.

And remember, it’s okay to say the “D” word. Stop whispering, and start a conversation.

A short while later my husband runs upstairs and proclaims, “The strangest thing just happened! A strong whirlwind just pushed the back door open and an unusually cool breeze entered the house.”

Oh, I said with a smile, that’s just Betty coming to say good-bye.

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