The Gift of Speaking

In my January 11, 2019 article, I extolled the virtues of talking freely and openly about death and dying and suggested some mechanisms for getting started.  Recent experiences of my own cause me to again urge having these conversations.  And having them with those we love, something I know can be much more challenging than a Death Café or a dinner with friends.

A recent client’s terminal diagnosis came as a complete surprise.  She had agreed to go to the doctor because her son was concerned about her fatigue and stomach pains.  After a series of tests, her physician told her she is unlikely to be alive when summer comes and advised her to go on hospice.  Before she had time to process this news, her son sprang into action, bringing to her home care-givers and a fine new recliner, and setting about re-arranging not just her apartment, but her life, in significant ways.  Understandably, she was angry.  When she expressed that anger, her son became angry in return.  As the song goes, “unkind words were spoken” and soon two bewildered people were feeling hurt and betrayed at a time when what each needed most was love and compassion.

As we worked together through these difficulties (mother and son now share a common vision of her end of life choices), it became clear that death was a topic neither knew how to approach.  With the doctor’s diagnosis, the Unthinkable had entered their lives.  There was no common language to begin the “what do we do now?” conversation.  My client had never allowed herself to contemplate what it might be like to be told “your last days are now.”  Her son had never allowed himself to view his mother as mortal.  Once he was faced with the doctor’s words, his response was to try to fix things, to make the grand gesture, to act rather than to feel.  Some practice with the topic at a less fraught time might have created a basis for closeness when each needed the other the most.

While I was reflecting on my time mediating the conversations between mother and son that lead to their developing a common plan, I thought about the folks who have assured me they don’t need to do anything as difficult as talking with their loved ones.  They have written it all out and will make sure, somehow, that the written document is where it needs to be when the time comes.  I applaud the act of writing one’s wishes.  It helps clarify what you want and acts as a guide in times of need.  It is far, far better than silence on the subject.  But it is a poor substitute for a conversation where you learn what both you and the other person think and feel.  Will it be hard for your beloved to carry out your wishes?  Would it be better to ask someone else and explain that choice?  You might find your beloved is relieved to be consulted, but not tasked with action.  And, just maybe, in having the difficult conversation, you might find yourself changing your thinking about a detail or two.

So, I am urging that each of us begins or carries on the conversations about death and dying.  With those closest to us.  If your own death is too difficult a topic, start with that of a relative, a friend, a pet.  Read a book (try Advice for Future Corpses [and Those Who Love Them] by poet Sallie Tisdale) and discuss it. Attend a Death Café and bring a loved one along.  Enjoy the knowledge that you are breaking a taboo by talking about something “we don’t discuss.”  You don’t even have to do it alone.  I’ll help.  Send me an email.

Letters of Love

Valentine’s Day has me thinking about love letters. I have a small cedar box where, over the years, I have sequestered cards and clippings and even a few letters that nourished my heart when I received them. This year, I went back in search of three: A letter from my grandmother expressing her pleasure at having lived long enough to see me married; one from my mother expressing confidence in me as a budding lawyer; one from a spiritual mentor reminding me that I have a unique role to fill. Each contains the voice of the author, feelings far deeper than the words themselves.

Will my words emerge from a memory box to encourage and sustain those I love? Will yours?

In her excellent book, The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love, Rabbi Elana Zaiman gives us the centuries old history of the deliberately prepared “ethical will” and brings its uses skillfully into our modern world. As she notes, a planned letter to those we cherish can serve one or several functions: to impart a lasting gift; to write what we cannot speak; to clarify our values; to allow us to live with greater intention; to ask for and to express forgiveness; to make ourselves and our values known; to influence the way we are remembered. Heavy freight for the page, but with the potential to lead to a freedom and an understanding that are beyond measure.

As an end of life coach, I have been privileged to help with the writing of legacy letters. Sometimes, these are left to be read on specific occasions, such as weddings and graduations, which the writer will not live to take part in. Sometimes, as Zaiman suggests, they are written to express what the writer cannot speak aloud. Sometimes, they serve to clarify the confusion of a life of doing and lead to an understanding, at last, of one’s purpose on this earth.

Important as “forever letters” are, they need not be left to our final weeks or days. The writing is the first step in a process that changes how we see ourselves and the world. Leaving that to the end of days means many missed opportunities.

It is never too late to say, “I love you.” It is never too early to say, “I forgive you. Please forgive me.” I urge you to write a letter today. You can decide tomorrow whether you will send it, keep it for later, or destroy it. I’d love to hear how it goes for you. And Happy Valentine’s Day.

Talking about Death

As I prepare this week to launch a new Death Café to serve the residents of a Seattle retirement community, I am reflecting on my great good fortune to have grown up in a family where death was an accepted topic of conversation.  I think it strange that death remains a taboo subject for “polite” conversation.  Clearly, other things not spoken of in my youth (incontinence garments come to mind) now enter my living room at any time via the tv screen. I find myself wondering: Why don’t we talk about death? And how can those who want to have those conversations find a way to begin?

In his book Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner), Michael Hebb theorizes that many of us would like to talk about death, to explore our own mortality in the company of family and friends, but assume that we are alone in this desire.  Surely, to bring up death would be, at best, discourteous.  One problem with this suppression of our desire to speak of death is that we remain ignorant of our own feelings and those of the people around us.  We are closed off from exploring how death has affected us or how we would like to live out the last days—or even years—of our own lives.  Hebb’s model of dinner parties held for the specific purpose of talking about death is one way people are starting these vital conversations.

Death Cafés are another way those interested in open conversation about death and dying are finding one another. These informal gatherings, organized by volunteers, offer a way for people to come together, often over tea and cake, to talk about whatever topic related to death they find compelling on that day.  Under the social franchise’s guidelines, the meetings are held “with no intention of leading participants to any conclusion, product or course of action.”  No two meetings are ever alike.  The animation of the conversation attests to the fascination of the general topic of death.  How surprised our proper ancestors and our young friends would be!

If you live in the greater Seattle area and would be interested in talking about death over dinner or at a Death Café, please leave a message on my contact page.  Death is a sacred adventure.  And it makes for fascinating conversation.