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How to talk about dying

Death – it’s the elephant in the room, but tackling confronting conversations about it should be top of your bucket list.
Bouquet of withered roses on white background. Dry petals and leaves. Symbol of past. Concept of heartbreak and death, experience disappointment, or loss of loved one. Copy space.

As far as dealing with death goes, Lisa Gallate inadvertently became an expert very early in life. By the age of 31 she’d lost her sister in a car accident, her first husband had committed suicide, and her fit and seemingly healthy brother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

As we speak, she breaks the interview to take a call from New Zealand where her elderly father is being rushed to hospital in an ambulance after a sudden fall.  

“To be honest, I feel like I’ve been dealing with death all my life,” says Lisa, who tackles the subject with admirable eloquence and down-to-earth pragmatism. “I’d much rather not have had the experience of the loss of so many loved ones, but maybe that’s why talking about end of life doesn’t feel confronting to me. In fact, I’ve learned that it’s the greatest gift that you can give those close to you.” 

It’s not a gift many of us are giving. Research shows that although 90 per cent of Australians say that talking to their loved ones about their end-of-life wishes is important, only 27 per cent actually have the conversation. Given that almost three-quarters of deaths are expected, experts say we should all make more effort to talk about death for everyone’s benefit. 

“Preparing for death is complex as it includes cognitive, practical and emotional preparedness,” says Professor Lauren Breen, who researches the psychology of grief and loss at Curtin University. “Knowing someone is dying doesn’t mean we’re automatically prepared for the death. It’s hard to be prepared emotionally when we don’t know exactly what will happen, when it will happen, or what the loss will mean for us.” All the more reason to tackle the topic head-on, according to Dr Breen, because that way you are able to honour someone’s wishes when the time comes. 

Woman holding hands with fading man in relationship

For Lisa, who has authored a book on grief (Just Because, available for pre-order in October at fairplaypublishing.com.au), the end-of-life discussions she had with her mother offered a comforting sense of certainty when faced with sudden medical decisions. “The enormity and finality of death feels brutal when it happens, even if you’re expecting it,” says Lisa. “You’re in such a state of heightened emotion that it’s at least a relief to know that you’re not second-guessing their wishes.”  

According to Dr Breen, although these conversations can be awkward and upsetting, they’re vital. “Make this a topic of conversation with family and friends before it needs to be, or before it’s too late,” she says. “Having things in place can help the people grieving the loss.”  

Recording and updating those plans regularly is also important. When her mum died, Lisa discovered her mother’s will stated she wanted to be buried. “That was contrary to our many conversations where she said she wanted her ashes scattered in her homeland, in Ireland,” says Lisa.

“My dad firmly believes you need to be buried within the Christian faith to go to heaven and so we had to have that tough conversation right there and then. The nurses were waiting on our decision so they’d know how to prepare Mum’s body. It’s really so much better if families can avoid having those conversations in that moment because emotions are already heightened.” 

The reality is that facing mortality, our own included, is confronting. In a post-pandemic world where daily death tallies were the norm, it’s easy to imagine that discussing dying with loved ones might have become less taboo, but recent research suggests we still prefer to avoid the short-term discomfort it brings, even if it leads to long-term pain.

“Death may feel too scary, sad or devastating to be raised for fear of opening up emotions that can’t be contained or supported,” says Melissa Reader, CEO of The Violet Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation that offers free advice and support to carers, friends and family of those facing end-of-life. “We might worry it will upset other family or friends, that talking about it might somehow make it happen, or it’s a sign we’ve given up hope for them. But if we plan together, then everyone involved understands how to make the experience the best it can be. This reduces regret after someone has died.” 

So, how do you start the conversation? Dr Breen suggests using films and books dealing with death as a prompt for discussion. “Family photos can be another way. It doesn’t all have to discussed in one day,” she says. “In fact, it’s better if death and dying are part of the ongoing conversation we have with people close to us.” 

You may even discover death can be a life-affirming topic. For Lisa, discussing her parents’ end-of-life plans got her thinking about what was meaningful in her own life, and prompted her to set goals to achieve these dreams. “I love [rabbi and author] Harold Kushner’s idea that not only do we inherit someone’s assets, we also inherit their unlived years,” says Lisa. “It’s a precious legacy, a reminder to live life to the fullest.” 

Even now, in the midst of arranging to see her father for what would turn out to be the last time, Lisa acknowledges it’s reassuring to answer questions about his medical intervention wishes and have instructions for his funeral so his preferences can be honoured. “Dad had a hand in his farewell as if he was with us,” says Lisa of his funeral. “It’s extraordinary, being human, because when love runs deep, it becomes very real when someone passes. You can’t escape grief, it’s the price for love.”

Polaroid photograph of white fluffy clouds and blue sky

Heart-to-heart

Melissa Reader, CEO of The Violet Initiative, explains why open, honest conversations about death can improve end-of-life for everyone.  

Stronger bonds 

Share your feelings of fear and sadness as this brings people together in an intimate way. It encourages rich and valuable discussions about what really matters in life and will also deepen your relationships. 

No regrets

Honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive. End-of-life conversations are an opportunity to express gratitude, love, appreciation and forgiveness, and can bring a sense of peace, reducing the potential for regret. 

Quality time

Discussing what matters most and how people wish to spend their time can help maximise someone’s quality of life. Some people want to be surrounded by family and friends, some want to take the trip of a lifetime and others may just want to be kept comfortable and pain-free. 

Senior couple, holding hands and closeup on table for care love or retirement support, compassion or trust. Old people, partnership and fingers for difficult news or loss comfort, solidarity or help

Honour the individual 

Planning for and discussing death can be the difference between having an end-of-life experience that aligns with your values and preferences or one that doesn’t.  

Five simple steps to take right now  Diane Young, Addictions and Trauma Specialist at South Pacific Private, says family conflicts often arise during grief or crisis. To avoid them, she recommends we:  

1. Draft a living will

Also called an advanced directive, it states your wishes for end-of-life medical care and has no power after death. Discuss it openly with loved ones. 

2. Write a testament

Appoint an executor to carry out your wishes. Let your family know what your will says, with everyone in the same room if possible, to save heartache later. 

3. Make funeral plans

Discuss your funeral, who should speak and anything else you’d like in the celebration of your life. Being clear about your wishes can help alleviate disputes after you have died. 

4. Speak from the heart

Fear of death can often be related to events that have happened in our lives. Speaking about death will often free family members from carrying any resentment or shame from the past.  

5. Get expert help

If you feel unable to speak freely and frankly about worries, it can overwhelm. Speaking with a professional about grief, fear or conflict can help to find a solution in a safe environment.  

Need support? Book a free session with a Violet Guide, who are all experienced carers, at violet.org.au or 1800 846 538.  

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