Death: The Topic No One Wants to Discuss

Life is a journey.

Death. If you created a party game where you had to quick! give a negative word, death might be the first one uttered. We fear death, avoid death, make jokes about it to ease our pain. But every one of us is mortal and so truly death is part of us—it is the end each of us will and must face.

And life.  It’s a journey, a phrase expressed by spiritual writers, a concept and image befitting the mysterious bends and turns in life that none of us can foresee.

But is ignorance bliss when it comes to our death and individual mortality? No.

Ask yourself, where would you want to die? 90% will answer, at home.

Consider. Where do most people die?  80% in nursing homes and hospitals.

Why the severe disconnect?  Monica Williams-Murphy, an ER physician, writes that we as a culture have created it because of what we believe about death.

  • Death is a medical event;
  • Medical technology can delay or cure death;
  • Talk of death does not belong in social circles; thus practical decisions related to it, like advance directives, funeral plans, or living wills are rarely addressed;
  • We have lost deep intimacy in our relationships, resulting in a scramble to keep the dying one with us so that we can clean up the mess we have made before they die.

Just this week death has been more present in my life.  A young man in our community died suddenly; a close friend who I love dearly is dying in hospice; and a friend has more than once questioned my decisions concerning the care of my 96-year-old mother who is in late stages of dementia.  You might say I am fulfilling one of Williams-Murphy’s cures for the 80/90 disconnect:

  • Take a natural view of death. Understand that death is a natural event that can usually be comfortably and peacefully managed at home or in a pleasant hospice setting.

Williams-Murphy writes USUALLY—the accidental death of the young man in our community was a shock.  But we all know this happens and we all know someone this sadness has happened to: my father died at 45 of a heart attack leaving 3 little kids; daily, accidental deaths or incidents of war leave families bereft.

  • Know that the appropriate use of medical technology at the end of life is the aggressive treatment of pain or any uncomfortable symptoms.  Not: ventilators, ICU admissions, and CPR. We must effectively move from “high tech” to “high touch” medicine at the end of life.  Comfort and communication from friends and family should be the focus.

Williams-Murphy states that the above can only be accomplished if we are able to talk about death and dying in our social situations and acknowledge that death is fundamentally part of each of our lives.  If we openly talk about death, we ease the decision-making burden of families because they will know what we need and want when our time comes.

My loving friend in hospice lives this.  Lives it right now, surrounded by her sons, her husband and family, her friends.  Surrounded by love.  And my mother has come to know it, also surrounded by caring people who understand that dementia is a progressive disease, that patients need to be watched and monitored so they will not hurt themselves or wander away.  I chose safety and consistency for my mother;  I had to admit that she has a mental illness.

Finally Williams-Murphy writes:

  • We must discover the power and gifts inherent in the end-of-life period when the sure knowledge of coming death creates an emotional window of opportunity—love may be freely expressed, old grudges fall away in insignificance, and closure obtained that remained elusive at other times of life. We must focus on creating quality of time at the end of life so that these gifts may be enjoyed.

I don’t wish death into your lives.  I do provide here a link to find Advance Directive forms for the state you live in and beg you to have this discussion with those you love. http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3289

You don’t need a malignant diagnosis to begin the process.  Take a healthy walk and talk—it’s an integral part of the journey of life.

Thanks to Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy and her blog post Create Peace and Dignity at the End of Life.   

Thanks to Google Images

photo by: JensSt

12 thoughts on “Death: The Topic No One Wants to Discuss

  1. Death is truly the movement from this life into the next. Eastern religions are specific about one’s preparation for the event, so that we make the transition in a peaceful way. In being prepared, we can face the change in a positive way and find peace both in leaving this world and entering the next. Thanks for these valuable ideas Boomer Highway….

    • It’s interesting that you bring up Eastern religions which have always had a more peaceful and resigned take on life and death and how the soul moves through levels. Being present to the world now helps lessen the tension; the beauties of life are guiding our spirits from this world to what lies beyond. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I am so grateful that both my parents had advanced directives in place and the burden of making choices was lifted from the shoulders of those already facing such big loss.

    My mom was a strong believer in having plans in place and making them known. We reviewed her plans periodically and she often said it made her sad that she couldn’t discuss it freely with others in the family who found it too depressing, but she understood.

    A hard topic, this post. Hard but important.

    • Thanks, Marilyn. Though my mother is deeply spiritual, she gave us a minimum of direction. Possibly this action echoes her firm belief that everything in the next world would be fine, so she was not very concerned with how to organize her passage. But such a passage is still in progress and has been somewhat difficult for her children. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Beth…As usual your wisdom and knowledge is right on point. We don’t like to think of “that event” but to embrace your words of wisdom brings realism to reality.

    • Joe,

      Your support is so welcome.
      It’s an important topic and can color the lives of us all when dealing with aging parents and when we look to the future and how our spouses and children need help and guidance from each of us.

      THANKS. Beth

  4. Beth,
    This post is so poignant right now. We don’t discuss death in my family… but it’s come so close to us so many times. Me and my sister both faced possible death circumstances at a young age and we’ve had to make changes to our life to prolong our lives. However, the fact that we have potentially fatal diseases is never discussed. Being that I am mother to young child and the financial support my death would have devastating consequences, yet it is still not discussed. Plans are not made and people just say I worry too much about things that won’t happen. Yet, I was inches from dying and that will never go away fully because of my disease. My maternal grandmother is unable to be left alone anymore because of a problem with her passing out all the time and now my mother has become full time caregiver. My grandmother is 93 years old and has had so many health problems that she could leave us at any time. However, that possibility is never discussed. There are no plans in place for her… thus, we have death all around but never talk about it, never make plans for what happens when IT happens because it will. I’ve sent this post on to my family in the hopes that they can understand it’s okay to talk about death. It’s okay to plan for it, it’s okay to realize IT will happen… to everyone…

  5. Natalie,
    I don’t mean to sound patronizing in any way, but what you wrote and the fact that you sent the post on is very brave of you. Yes, someone has to crack the silence and get the conversation going. Intelligent talk, not emotional talk, about what could happen AND HOW TO PLAN FOR THAT, must be considered. If not for your grandmother, for Grace. She deserves no less. I’m so glad you responded and I’m so glad you are doing something about your concerns. Beth

  6. Thank you for this article. I just got my living will done so that I could save my family from the stress. It was pretty easy to do (legal paperwork-wise, not necessarily emotionally). But I really encourage people to do theirs, too. Here is a website that posted some standard forms for each state. http://www.paperwell.com/docs/contracts/living-will–2 Good luck and take care, everybody!

  7. Honeylew:

    Thanks for your comment and your link. Saving families from stress at a time when stress goes hand in hand with life is so very important. Glad that you felt it was easy to do–paperwork sometimes holds us back. I know I will write more posts when I see that I can help readers. Again, thanks, Beth

  8. Beth,

    Congratulations for stepping up and taking on the controversial topic of death. As an ER doctor for 20+ years I, Like Dr. Williams-Murphy, have been exposed to death professionally many times. It used to feel like a failure when someone died- like we lost a battle.
    Then I helped a friend die of melanoma at the age of 32, leaving behind a wife and three children between one and five. I become part of his hospice team and we surrounded him with and his family love and support over the last few months of his life. That experience taught me that death is not the enemy. Fear is the enemy. And so many people live with fear for much of their lives, which keeps them from fully engaging in life. Fear of death (or even discussing death) is one of the main “life limiters,” But when people actually have the discussion, in a safe and supportive environment, it can be a real catharsis- a life giving conversation.

    That’s why I’m beginning A Life and Death Conversation on Friday June 22nd at noon PST. A partner and I ware hosting a series of free calls to get the conversation started on a grander scale. Our goal is to help people more fully engage in life by developing a better relationship with death.

    I hope you’ll join us. Learn more at http://www.ALifeandDeathConversation.com

  9. Thanks for your support and for what you are doing to help bring this topic to the forefront. We need to discuss death as part of life and as you write, not make it a life limiter. Good luck with your conversation on Friday, June 22nd. Beth

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