TALKING ABOUT DEATH
A doctor friend of mine told me a story, he was in medical school and a doctor /professor was talking
about a specific medical condition. He said that “if these complications occur the patients who develop them will eventually die.” Then he stopped for a second or two, and said, “but then, all patients eventually die.” My friend then commented that “the medical profession is basically just stalling for time.”
It became clear to me, during my wife's battle with breast cancer, that doctors are well aware
that the added time is precious to the patient. That with the advanced medical tools available to them
they can improve the length and quality of life for their patients. The professor's point that we all eventually die is simply not something we are taught , and we don’t discuss it very much either. As long we have lived, we have died. The simple fact of life is that we will eventually die and someone we love will die. We will at sometime in our life experience grief.
No one is immune. We all live with it and yet we still find death and dying very difficult to discuss.
With the medical advances life expectancy has increased. We expect the advances in medicine
to prolong our lives regardless of our diagnosis. We may breeze through our twenties, thirties or forties without ever having to confront the reality of our mortality. So we rarely ever discuss it. Maybe if we don't talk about it....it won't happen!
Our ancestors we were much better at talking about death. In Victorian times people may have
been reluctant to discuss sex, but death was part of their daily life. Disease was rampant, so living with
death was normal. No one was exempt from an early death, no matter how privileged or wealthy they
were. Only 40 per cent of babies born in the 1850s would reach their 60th birthday. Less than 10 per
cent made it to their 80th. That meant that our ancestors experienced a lot of death and attended a lot of funerals.
We are no strangers to death though. Over the last 125 years death has occurred on a major
scale with two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, a major flu epidemic and now the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet we still don't openly discuss the difficulty and complexity of the emotions that death and grieving
brings. We continue to deal with the trauma of death by embracing a stiff upper lip, hiding our
emotions and moving on. No talking about death won’t prevent it from happening, it will only
perpetuate the fears, misconceptions and confusion surrounding it.
In my book “Balloon in a Box, Coping with Grief” I suggest that we need to reclaim our
emotions and learn how to better process how we feel. If we talk openly and about death and how we
feel, about how something is impacting us we can begin to understand that whatever we are feeling is
normal and find a way through it. By opening up and talking, we can share our experiences. We can
dispel the damaging myths that grief is something you get over. We can embrace grief in the knowledge that it’s something we can learn to live with, and not feel we’ve failed because we haven’t “got over” the death of someone important.
By embracing the end as we do the beginning, by acknowledging our mortality, by not thinking that we have forever and by not taking our beautiful life for granted, we might just be able to see the world in a different way. Let’s not wait until we reach the end of our lives before we have the conversation. Let’s talk about it right now.