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.