Breaking the taboo to talk about having a ‘good death’

Ahead of Death Awareness Week, JOANNE SAVAGE asks why we are so afraid to talk about the inevitable

Friday, 7th May 2021, 8:00 am
It is the transience of life that augments its beauty

Death is the only certainty in life, notes Guy De Maupassant, the only life occurrence with the absolute probability of one. However painful it is for us to fathom, and particularly here in Western societies where we never approach the subject without outsized reticence and fear, in the sensual music of life WB Yeats wrote so eloquently of the undeniable truth: “Whatever is begotten, born and dies.”Yet many of us refuse to confront the reality of our mortality, which would allow us to set more value on the limited time we have here among those we love, since it is because this will never come again that it has such transient, heartbreaking, precious, fleeting beauty.

During the Renaissance period artists such as Albrecht Dürer, and Rembrandt painted the traditional memento mori or human skull in their work as a reminder to the viewer that their earthly existence was limited and that they must confront the big questions of love, ethics, morality and the possible existence of God or the redemption of the soul before they left this mortal coil.

The memento mori focused the mind on the incontrovertible, inescapable reality that this life, for all of us, will end and we must live accordingly, savouring each second and living by the moral principles set by the faith we prescribe to or by those we set ourselves from our individual life philosophies.

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But unlike during the renaissance period when the human skull featured in so many paintings as a reminder of the transience of the flesh and the imminence of divine judgement, today we are desensitised to death and avoid the subject like a taboo.

“99 per cent of people will die at some point in their lives,” said Will Ferrell in one of his many hit movies. It is funny, obviously ludicrously untrue, yet many of us seem to operate as through death is something that happens only in the abstract and only to other people - as though there were or could be this immortal one per cent who had somehow found the elixir to everlasting life - until we lose someone we love or are confronted by the proximity of our own demise, and we realise, well, there is no escape from the terrible democratic truth of death, and it is perhaps useful to talk it, the great leveller that comes to us all regardless of status, wealth or fame. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Many of us, perhaps the more senior among us, may have thought about burial, a service to celebrate our life, who we would like to spend our last moments with or who we need to make aware of our final wishes. A great many more of us will have avoided having such uncomfortable conversations that make us realise the sovereignty of the ego is an illusion, and six feet under is the final destination, inevitable and ineluctable as the ticking of the clock.

During Dying Matters Week, May 10-16, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust alongside North West Compassionate Communities and other partners are encouraging people to come together and have meaningful conversations about their wishes for end of life care and death, so their loved ones are prepared when the time comes.

Dying Matters week brings the theme ‘The importance of being in a good place to die’ which encourages everyone to think ahead to a time when you will need to make key decisions for yourself or for others during bereavement to ensure wishes are fulfilled.

Starting the conversation, the Northern Health Trust is hosting a webinar, welcome for everyone to join virtually on Wednesday May 12, 10am to 12.30pm. Attendees will be asked to think about how they can help themselves, their families and communities to be in a good place to die – physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, digitally and with the right care in place.

They are encouraging everyone to take five simple steps that can make a big difference when preparing for death; write a will, record funeral wishes, plan future care and support, register as an organ donor and most importantly of all tell your loved ones your wishes.

Sharon Williams, project coordinator with North Western Compassionate Communities based in Londonderry who help people prepare for death with an emphasis on compassion, has much to say on the subject of helping people break down the taboo to talk openly with loved ones and friends about their own death, their wishes and getting to what she calls a ‘good place to die’. The organisation has a befriending system where volunteers can sign up to spend time with those suffering from a terminal diagnosis. They also provide training on how you can become a ‘compassionate neighbour’, crossing the street to the family where there is a diagnosis or bereavement and helping overcome your own awkwardness so that those people feel embraced by a sense of community.

“Death is not about some day, it’s about one day. It’s the perennial elephant in the room. It sounds obvious, but people don’t like to be reminded or confronted of the very basic fact that it is a reality for us all. Death has become so euphemised and medicalised in our culture so that we have lost that basic proximity to it that would have been more predominant historically when corpses were not hidden away in parlour homes and mortuaries with the kind of reverence and secrecy that they are today.

“We are very uncomfortable with death because it frightens us on the most primal level. But this attitude really isolates those of us living with a life limiting illness, people who are elderly and approaching the end, and people who are bereaved, who others may actually avoid because they find the subject too difficult and painful to confront.

“It’s a hard journey, but people do not have to walk these paths on their own.

“Death Awareness week is focused on the ways that you can be prepared for death, both as an act of self-care and as a way of looking after your loved ones in what could be a time when they are plunged into crisis if you have say not written a will, made your wishes known or set your house in order, as it were.

“Looking at advanced care planning, discussing the kind of care you would like to receive at the end of your life, whether that will be in a care setting or at home, talking about funeral arrangements, making your peace with the reality of death - this can make it less fearsome and a less traumatic experience for those you love who will be left behind.

“I think talking about death is the first step. Emotionally, to have those open, tender conversations that are difficult to broach with our nearest and dearest - that is a profound thing and something we would definitely encourage. I think these are liberating conversations that must be had and talking about it does not hasten your death in any way. It is simply about accepting and making peace with its mostly distant inevitability. Planning is about avoiding death occasioning a pragmatic crisis. But reaching a good place to die for those with a terminal diagnosis may be about finding themselves reconciled with things spiritually or talking to a faith leader who can help them find a peaceful acceptance of their time to go that is sustained by faith.

“Or it could be deciding to set things right with those you have differences with.

“I think if you confront your own death it can actually allow you to lead a fuller life because you are aware that your time is limited and in that awareness can make big decisions on how you best want to spend your time. Covid has put the spotlight on this. We have all had the opportunity to stop and ask, ‘What is actually important?’ And it has made death and the prospect of death seem more immediate and more real which leads to soul-searching and a need to work out what it is you want to do with the time you have.”