Talking about death is rarely on the top of most people’s minds. Even in the times when it seems most appropriate, we tend to want to talk about the tragedy of it all and not the beauty of possibilities. As a Community Deathcare Activist, I come face to face with this adversity regularly. I feel myself going down the death talk rabbit hole continuously and I continue to make people uncomfortable at parties.
I am learning to keep my death conversation to more appropriate times but through my awkwardness of trial and error, I have learned how to start the conversation. Some still walk away or change the topic, but some sit with it, ask questions. More often than not, I will inevitably be asked: “I wish you could talk to my mom about this.” Or “My mom would never have this conversation!” and that typically leads us down a path of discussion recommendations.
The art of death communication is a fine balance of logic and emotion. You need to know what resonates with your audience first. If discussing with someone who is more logical..talk planning. If it is someone who is more emotional perhaps talk through ideas. But how do you start an open conversations about what death means and what it could be like, without having everyone abandon their drinks and suddenly have to go to the washroom? Here are a few quick ideas that can help you get the confidence to start conversations on your own.
I started talking to my children about it. They have such wide open, imaginative minds that they make for a great testing ground! I simply asked, “what do you think happens to you after you die?” and then we graduated up to “well, if you die before me, how do you imagine us celebrating how great you are?” the answer of course always leads to fireworks and cake but you can see the wheels turning and it’s a beautiful thing to watch! Even at random times, in the grocery store line as an example. Wide-eyed adults all stared as my son nonchalantly said, “you know Mom, I think if I die before you, I want my body carried off by Peregrine Falcons. Can you imagine – I would love to fly with a Peregrine Falcon!” I agree with how cool would that be and that we should do some research to see if it’s possible here in Canada. My 7-year old then daughter tells everyone how bad formaldehyde is for the earth and how we need to stop putting dead people in concrete boxes. I am one proud mama.
While imagining death with your kids is a great icebreaker for you the thought provoker, having this same conversation with an adult is much more complex. You must be able to break through death phobia and of course all their biases. It helps to be prepared and even use the conversations you have had with children to do so.
Death is not only a big topic but typically carries huge emotional baggage. If you are looking to talk to someone about what dying and death means in your lives, it can certainly be a lot to take in all at once. So perhaps it’s better to break it into sections. For example, planning conversations are always easiest. In a recent study, however, a staggering 62% of Canadians do not have a will. It is most likely a conversation that needs to happen, but how do you start it? I say start slowly.
The beauty of starting slowly (and while you are young), is that you can be curious without carrying the weight of end of life. Plan for your Advanced Health Directives while you are healthy. I am a firm believer in “being prepared” and for some, that’s enough to get them planning. Others, however, need to be open and curious to the possibilities. I am obviously not the norm, but my husband and I talk about our death all the time, he has offered to let the kids decide what happens to his body if he goes in the next while. So we are imagining a Great Pyre, with fireworks and carrot cake.
WHAT IS YOUR LEGACY?
So many people are completely unaware of their options. How are you supposed to decide what you want when you think you only have a couple options? There are so many options today that you could very well be overwhelmed. From traditional funerals to Memorial Reefs and Recomposition, we are drowning (eek) in choices.
This curiosity can lead to quite a wonderful journey into how you live your life and what resonates with you. Are you active mountaineer who is only happy at the tops of mountains? Are you a foodie who was interested and curious about new and exciting food’s? Are you deeply connected to nature, to your family, to astronomy? How can we encompass these pieces of you in your deathcare that will resonate with those you leave behind? How can we leave a memory of you with each person and have them, in turn, carry your legacy?
It’s a discovery process that you can align with what your legacy is. If you can imagine what you would like your death to look like it is easier to work back from what you envision. Older Generations typically resonate with legacy for example – so perhaps this is where the questions start.
ASK BETTER QUESTIONS
This is all good except you still need to start the conversation and more often than not, getting someone talking is the toughest job. Here are a few that I have used to help getting the conversation started:
I’ve been thinking about making my end of life plans, have you created anything like a will?
How did you decide on an executor?
I have heard that it’s important to have an Advance Health Directive – do you have one?
I was researching burial options because I heard Formaldehyde is so bad – I can’t believe how many options there are! Have you made any EOL decisions?
I was looking up funeral costs and I can’t believe how many options there are now, what type of care are you imagining at the end of your life?
I think I want a funeral service in the backyard. It is always where I am happiest.
I imagine a huge clambake at my funeral it reminds me so much of our big family celebrations.
Start young, grow slowly and use your imagination! Being curious and present inside these discussions will help you understand not only what your loved ones are prepared to talk about but how to ask meaningful questions. That just like in birth, in life and then in death, we have a chance to honour the beautiful discovery of learning not only about ourselves but how to honour and respect the people that mean the most to us.
Image by Harli Marten - Unsplash