Let’s face it, death is hardly the stuff of dinner party conversations. Most of us humans also prefer to put off awkward conversations. Combine the two, and you’re unlikely to start the conversation with your family about what you want to happen in your final days.
Statistics bear this out. More than 80 per cent of us know it’s an important conversation to have but only 28 per cent have actually had the conversation with our family or friends.
Whether it’s our own mortality we’re faced with, or the imminent loss of someone close to us, it’s never an easy time. Yet the end of life doesn’t have to be a time of anguish. Yes, there will be grief and sadness, but with some preparation, it can also be a time to create memories and celebrate life in all its fragility.
But first, we need to be prepared to talk.
It’s the internet age and we’ve never been able to access so much information about, well, everything, including death. But according to Rose Dillon, manager of experience and engagement at LifeCircle Australia, death is still a taboo topic for many people.
“People find it very difficult to talk about death and dying but no-one’s going to escape death at some point, whether it’s the death of a loved one or our own death,” she says.
Most of the practical aspects of preparing for death, such as making a will and getting essential paperwork sorted, are well understood. It’s the more personal aspects, such as decisions around caring for somebody with a life-limiting condition, that can be challenging to discuss.
Dillon says that in some cases, though, putting off those more personal conversations about how you or a loved one wish to spend the last days of life can have a disastrous impact.
“If it’s a parent or older person, it can be a gradual decline as the person becomes more frail and they need more support over time,” she explains. “Other times, there’s a medical event with a partner or a parent or a child, and suddenly you’re in the role of carer.
“People can be thrust into this role really quickly and find themselves in quite a chaotic world and not be sure where to turn.”
Although there’s no set script to help us prepare for death, there are resources which can help, including this information provided by Starts at 60 and Westpac on how to kickstart end-of-life discussions with your family.
LifeCircle Australia, which provides resources for people with life-limiting conditions and their carers, can also help, whether you need assistance in finding services or simply want to learn more about how to have a meaningful connection with a loved one in the final stages of life. You can also connect with an experienced LifeCircle guide via phone or video chat at no cost.
We tend to tread softly around other humans when they’re very ill, and perhaps feel that it’s best to keep our conversations to the mundane. But when it comes to healing old wounds, your own or a loved one’s final days might be your last chance to put things right, so it’s not always best to shy away from difficult discussions, Dillon says.
“You may not be able to resolve conflicts, especially if they’ve been going on for many years, and they may be very complicated,” she says. “But the person dying may want to … try to reach out to people who’ve been important in their lives at some point and to resolve those difficulties, or simply to say goodbye.
“It might be a time to have really honest conversations about understanding that they’re getting towards the end of their life, or to make some memories for the people they’re leaving behind.”
Dillon says even long-running family feuds, which might have been off-limits for discussion when time seemed endless, can sometimes be resolved when a person recognises that death is near, and is willing to have an honest conversation. So, give your loved one the chance to talk if they wish, and think about what connections they might want to re-establish if given the opportunity.
“Being able to say thank you to people, to connect with people, it’s really the greatest opportunity for intimacy when you think about it that way,” Dillon adds.
We sometimes talk about people having a ‘good’ death; not being in pain, feeling safe in a familiar environment and having loved ones nearby are the elements most people tend of think of when it comes to ‘dying well’. But Dillon says death is never ‘good’.
“It’s never easy,” she says. “People will always feel sad, and it’s difficult to say goodbye. Even the best deaths are tinged with sadness. But it’s the memories that you hang onto and carry forward that make the grieving process so much easier.”
Things to know: The information in this publication is general information and factual only. It does not constitute any recommendation or advice. It is an overview only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. You should consider obtaining your own independent professional advice. © Westpac Banking Corporation ABN 33 007 457 141 AFSL and Australian credit licence 233714.