Even though there has been increasing media attention to end-of-life issues over the past year, we still live in a death-phobic, death-avoidant culture. While our movie and videogame screens are filled with images of violent death and news reports remind us every day of various threats to life, there is still a scarcity of authentic conversation about death in our society.
Increased awareness and acceptance that death is a natural part of life is one of the most-needed changes in our communities. When we are able to face death without shutting out the conversation or turning away our attention, we will be less likely to resort to futile medical treatments to support our illusion of immortality and more likely to live our days to the fullest, because we will recognize that they won't last forever.
In order to reach a point in our society where death becomes a "household word" we must begin to have normal, ordinary conversations about all things related to death and dying. But this is a difficult task for most of us because we've never been taught to talk about death. So here are some suggestions for bringing death into everyday discussions with almost everyone in your life:
1. Recognize opportunities to talk about death.
Start listening for natural openings to bring up death and dying. When you are part of a conversation about terrorism in the Middle East or a natural disaster for example, add comments like "I wonder what the families of the dead are going through right now," or "How does a community deal with so many dying people after a tragedy like that?"
2. Start with the impersonal approach.
Most people will be more comfortable talking about death in general terms rather than from a personal perspective. When you first bring up the subject with co-workers or casual associates keep your death references impersonal by talking about historical or newsworthy events rather than asking direct and confronting questions. For example, talk about the death of a public figure or celebrity (like David Bowie or Glenn Frye) and the impact it has had on society and even on your own life.
3. Be responsive when death affects a friend or co-worker.
If someone in your workplace experiences the death of a loved one, utilize that situation to start more personal conversations about grief and loss. Teach your co-workers how to react to grief and create a plan to offer support to the one who has suffered a loss. I have frequently heard stories from people who returned to work after experiencing a family death to find that not one person would talk to them about their grief or even acknowledge that a tragedy had occurred. If you are comfortable with death you can help your friends and co-workers get more comfortable too.
4. Ask questions about death.
If you would like to have a conversation with an older loved one about planning ahead for their own end-of-life, start with this question: "What was it like when your parents (or siblings) died?" Many older people will have stories about the death of their own loved ones and will be eager to share them. Listen intently and make note of details: what was especially unpleasant for them, what did they cherish, what circumstances did they regret. When you have a clear picture of their feelings about these deaths you can ask "What would you like to be different when it is your time to die?"
5. Share interesting books or media that deal with death.
Talk about books you have read that deal with death as a way to start a conversation. For example "I just read The Legacy Letters, which contains letters from a dying father to his unborn children and it got me thinking. What would you want to write in a letter for your children to read after you die?"
You could also mention a movie you've seen recently, such as The Bucket List or Still Alice as a conversation-starter about the end-of-life. Or utilize a game like My Gift of Grace to discover thought-provoking questions about death and dying like "What song would like to hear on your last day alive?" You might suggest playing the game after a dinner with friends or just read a few of the questions to open up a death-related discussion.
6. Tell stories about death.
One of the most effective ways to stimulate conversations about death is to tell stories about your own personal experiences with death and dying. Talk about what happened and how you felt, but take care not to sensationalize the details or generate fear in your listeners. Be matter of fact about what happened and point out that these are normal and natural occurrences.
7. Teach children about death from an early age.
You can begin talking about death with children in a non-frightening way by pointing out how the leaves on a tree die each autumn and then nourish the soil so that new leaves can grow in the spring. Emphasize that death is a normal part of the cycle of life and then find other opportunities to talk about death, like when you discover a dead insect or bird in the yard or when a pet dies.
Plan funerals for dead animals and family pets and create rituals for saying goodbye and honoring the transition from life to death. Read books that deal with death like Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley; Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert; and Grandma's Scrapbook by Josephine Nobisso The knowledge you share and the ceremonies you teach your children will be extremely important preparation for dealing with the deaths of loved ones in the future.
If you want to make a difference in how we deal with dying in our society, make a commitment to include death as a normal part of your conversations in everyday life. Be courageous and creative as you spread the word that death is not to be feared, but respected as a necessary part of life.
When the word "death" shows up in our conversations as readily as "love" or "Twitter" or "Facebook" and when you hear discussions about death around the water cooler at work, then you will know that we have made progress. This is what the world needs from us as we struggle to salvage this beautiful planet, which thrives on the cycle of life and death: honest, real and natural talk about death and dying.
About the Author: Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.