How to talk about death when no one else wants to

April 5 | Guest post by Nuri McBride
Love and Death Embrace patch from Etsy seller 69thingstodo

Personally, I am quite lucky to simply take death as a part of life. Three separate incidents in two years in which my life was *this close* to ending pushed me harder and faster than most into acceptance. Plus, as a nurse, I have been around numerous bodies and grieving families.

I faced real resistance though, when I forced (yes, forced) my boyfriend to accompany me as we got a will and protection mandate done. And I spooked most of my friends and family — getting a lot of awkward hand-twisting and eye-avoiding — when I explained the reason I wanted to finally get married. (Because it was really important I did before I died, and I suddenly didn't feel time was a luxury I had.)

How do you broach such a taboo subject like death in a way that is respectful to other's sensibilities yet still makes them think?
-SonyaG

That is a great question. First off you get a gold star for having a will and a protection mandate. You, my friend, are awesome!

This is a tough one but here are a few things that might be helpful:

If you get resistance when you talk about death

Death is natural, and having concerns about death is natural. What isn't natural is entirely rejecting the reality of the human condition.

It helps me to remind myself that their behavior comes from a place of fear. Death is so scary to them they can't even talk about it hypothetically. Try to center yourself in compassion and tell them that death is natural, and having concerns about death is natural. What isn't natural is entirely rejecting the reality of the human condition. But you want to let them know that when they are ready to have that conversation, you will be there for them. Then go to an aforementioned Death Cafe or the Death Positive Reddit and talk with folks that are ready for that conversation.

Try to deconstruct the resistance with your family member. If your partner says something like, "it's so morbid to have to have a will," calmly address why it is important to you. (It gives me peace of mind, it's responsible, I'm a grown-ass woman that handles my business, I want to save you from making hard choices should the worst happen). Then ask why it's hard for him to talk about it. A lot of times it's a knee jerk reaction coming from a place of anxiety, and if you calmly and logically break it down and talk about it, the fear doesn't have any place to run to.

Your family and friends don't have your professional experience, and, as you have had near misses in the last few years, keep in mind that they have almost lost you. They may not be taking it as well as you think. Perhaps before you talk about death planning, it might help to have a conversation about how they processed your recent scares and work through any unresolved grief they may be dealing with.

The Talk and Tuck method

A pretty effective method for breaching the death talk is what I call The Talk and Tuck. You say, "Look, I know it's hard — but it will be so much harder after something happens. So let's set aside some time to chat about it. We will get all the stuff in order and then tuck it away and enjoy life."

I think because they'll see an end point to the discussion, and because you are reassuring them that you are not morbid, it helps resistant family open up a bit.

Be persistent

You are not going to give up on having this conversation, but recognize that they are on their journey too. They may need some time to think about things. Bring it up and if you're hitting a wall don't get into a fight, but a week or so later ask if they have thought any more about what you were talking about.

It also helps to find a soft opening that works for your audience. I have a friend who is a jewelry designer, and my "in" with him was mentioning that there are companies that can take the carbon of your ashes and make you into a diamond. If I had started with estate planning, his eyes would have glazed over.

The Death Positivity movement

Medicine has been able to extend physical life by decades, but quality of life hasn't been as great of a focus. Death Positivity advocates for scientists to put a greater focus on quality of life care in medicine and for doctors to support and empower terminally ill patients on end of life choices. I, nor anyone, can choose for you what your Good Death is — some people may not want to suffer, and others will want to prolong life at any cost. What Death Positivity wants to do is give you the resources to make informed choices for yourself.

I think you might benefit from going to a Death Cafe, which is a group that organizes local meet-ups to talk about these very issues. You can see if there is one near you at deathcafe.com. Plus there's cake!

You might find these books helpful too:

Most important, you are not weird for wanting this conversation so don't lose hope and don't let anyone make you feel unsure of how important these conversations are.

Those are just a few of my suggestions, but I'd love to hear what others might suggest as well.

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  1. Humor is also a great way to open up these kinds of topics and get people into a more receptive place. I'm a big fan of Caitlyn Doughty's Ask a Mortician series on youtube. It was a good resource for me to think more big picture about death and grief without getting too bogged down with angst.

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  2. I don't have difficulty with death, burying a child of our own, taking care of multiple family members during hospice, being sick for several years now and hanging on by my finger tips more than a handful of times has sadly also made death, dying and severe illness has made these topics somewhat of a norm for our six, four and three year old. Which is far too young to be this intimate with the subject matter. However I feel a teaching our children to hold a healthy respect for such sensitive matters should be our goal when teaching our young. Death is a normal part of life and while it's sad and we may cry many tears it's something that we must accept, and find peace with especially when our elderly have no quality of life left. We've never covered violent circumstances and that is something that will be a lesson for another time for my children but accidents, illness and old age is in a different realm in my opinion.

    I don't want fear to be the deciding factor for how my children to approach death rather I'd like respect, love and peace to be the words associated with the passing of another. I feel the world would benefit by embracing the path of grief in its multiple stages and focusing on supporting one another during the grieving process

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  3. Adding a book recommendation- If you're interested in death positivity, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlyn Doughty is a great read

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    • On the subject of books, my recommendation although older is, On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. It helped my father come to peace with dying and helped me learn how to deal with his death so young in my adult life.

  4. This is my favorite post yet. I'm a big fan of the death positivity movement. I attend a death open mic event, follow the Good Death, and memorial jewelers, as well as other death focused social media pages, and have considered working in hospice (I'm not mature enough to grapple with the subtleties yet), but it's especially hard to talk about with a particular friend who I want to be very sensitive to, since that friend lost a young sibling to suicide. I don't think "positivity" will ever be something I can relate that scenario with. But in my family, we talk about it a lot. I already chose what I want to have when my parents die, and they wrote it into their will. We joke about death, I think about it daily, as a reminder of the preciousness of life, the uncertainty of our outcomes, and so on. It's just a part of life, and depending on your spiritual beliefs, possibly the start of something new.
    Another book I'd recommend is called the Last Great Adventure of Life. Thanks for the list above! Much love, and frank morbidity. <3

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    • Suicide is a difficult situation, sadly I've lost a few friends and a family member which is devastating and as to what to say always depends upon the circumstances and individual. Often times no words at all, supportive silence can be the best medicine. My heart goes out to your Friend Zsazsa.

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      • Thank you. Yeah I am close with the whole family, and it was pretty tough on me too for a couple of years, but they seem really receptive to discussing it. I just don't think my "enthusiasm" about death as a topic belongs in their range of vision/hearing, which is the only reason I'm not more vocal about it in general. But I guess everyone has their reasons for it being a potentially sensitive subject, other than just fear of "the end" and I should be more considerate overall.

        • Enthusiasm, yes probably not the most appropriate circumstances to be overtly enthusiastic. I think it's perfectly okay and even normal to have a certain fascination with death. I don't see it as particularly morbid. I think morbid refers to more of a violent nature attached to death. Everyone has their reasons for being particularly sensitive to the subject and I don't think people look too closely at why they're sensitive about it. I feel majority are that way because they fear not necessarily 'the end' but the unknown in general. Society has definitely put very morbid per se spin on things. Having taken care of loved ones on hospice until they're passing possibly changed my personal perception as opposed to society's. I've always had certain view of death. I think there are two very important days in a person's existence, birth and death. Both deserve a great deal of attention and even in some cases a bit of celebration. With birth we celebrate the potential of a person. In death we celebrate the life that a person lead and ultimately who the person had become.
          As a general rule I probably wouldn't be overly vocal about the way you feel regarding this very subject as you said people are sensitive for different reasons that may go beyond the obvious social taboo and society in general has many different rules none of which are necessarily logical. I personally completely accept your feelings on the subject.

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          • "With birth we celebrate the potential of a person. In death we celebrate the life that a person lead and ultimately who the person had become."

            Love this!

  5. I'm sorry, but this rubbed me the wrong way in a couple of ways. I'm one of those people who don't want to talk about death. I have an incurable medical condition, and that's hard enough to deal with on its own. I cannot talk about it or dying and self-care in the way that I need to. To have somebody try to push that on me would be hurtful to me. How I deal with my life and my death is MY choice. Just because somebody else wants to talk about it with me does not mean I owe them that conversation. As for the second thing that bothered me, it was the use of force when referring to the boyfriend and the death planning. While that is a good idea, and if you can talk your partner into agreeing, any use of that word really raises my hackles. You don't force another human being. We always have a choice. It may be death planning or breaking up, but it is still a choice. To say you forced a person you claim to love into doing something they likely didn't want to do just seems horrible to me. I realize many people use that word when what they really mean is "this person didn't want to do this but I talked them into it" but force is something else entirely.

    I don't mean any disrespect, it's just…my opposing perspective. I appreciate the time and thought that went into sharing ways to deal with a difficult topic. It's just something I have to disagree with.

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  6. I don't have a problem with death as much as I have a problem with funerals. I find them uncomfortable because in my world view the person in the casket is not really "there" anymore and I feel strange mourning over a body when the person I knew has moved on. When I was a child I attended the viewing of my grandmother and I still wish I hadn't because rather then remember they things I loved about her when she was alive first, I think of her body in that box. A few years later I refused to attend the funeral of a classmate which infuriated my mother. I wanted to deal with the grief in my own way but that was apparently not okay.

    So I think you can't force people to cope with or address death in a prescribed way because what you might actually be doing is ruining the grieving process for them.

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    • I've never been to a viewing for that reason (but they're not really expected where I live, and we don't tend to do open caskets). I'd rather remember the person as they were when I last saw them in happy circumstances.

      The last funeral I was at was quite good – the family had done a private cremation in the morning so the whole thing was about memories and life celebration, not mourning a box at the front of the room. I liked that idea a lot.

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    • Hey Aizlyne, I think Sonya's question is relating to her frustration with family avoiding her death preparedness more so than the mourning process. I'm certainly not advocating for one set way of mourning or approaching death. As I mentioned above, one needs to respect that friends and family are on their path and they may not be ready for those conversations. There are also other outlets like Death Cafe or Death Salon for sharing when family isn't the right fit for those talks. A big problem with modern death rituals, as you mentioned, is that people feel the ritual is not genuine to the experience or fulfilling. There are lots of acceptable ways to grieve, and a conversation about the existential value of life isn't something you can force someone to engage in if they are not ready. However, that is why sharing this information with our loved ones is so important. If you don't want the standard burial for yourself because it doesn't reflect your values, you need to let those close to you know that so they can honour your wishes. There is a difference between a conversation about the meaning of death and a conversation about responsible death preparation. These two are often misconstrued because Western culture has such a taboo against frank conversations about death that even talking about medical issues can be difficult to breach. The point of death preparation is to make sure your wishes are understood and to legally protect your loved ones during an already hard time. It is imperative that for instance, your family know if you want a DNR (do no resuscitate) or if you want to protect the rights of your spouse who is a step-parent to your children should you die. Sometimes it's very easy, but sometimes these are more nuanced conversations that take time, and both are ok. It's also ok to not know what you want, but if you do know there is something that you want in relation to your medical care or death the only way it will be respected is if you legally protect yourself and let your loved ones know. I can not stress enough how important it is to make these decisions for yourself, get legally protected (with a will, power of attorney, protection agreement for minor children, and life insurance if you can afford) and then make sure your loved ones at least know the basics. It is especially important for LGBTQ people and non-traditional families that may not be protected fully by the law. If that leads to a deeper conversation that's amazing and I think it can bring families closer together. It may even help your mother understand that you grieve in a different way than her, but if not that's ok too. The most important thing is that you both know what each other's wishes are.

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    • It just shows how everyone's different. Personally, I find it a huge help to see a body. It doesn't taint my memories, but it does help me accept that the person is truly gone. Without the proof of a body I have a hard time realising the death emotionally, even though I know intellectually the person's dead. You're right, there is no "right way", everyone has their own coping methods.

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    • Funerals can definitely be odd, but I also agree with the person who said they can be a huge help. I have skipped funerals where I felt like the organization and people involved were less than genuine, and gone to others where I felt like it was crucial that I be there. I have also gone to a memorial where there was no body found for the deceased, and the lack of closure that brings is very difficult.

      I'm really interested in the woman's methods who created the Order of the Good Death, as well as alternative options for cremated remains, like making them into vinyl records or a diamond, or fertilizer for a special tree.

      I find it really odd when people take photos at a funeral though. My extended family did that once with the body, and I had no idea how to react. Some people automatically smiled when the camera was aimed at them (not that smiling is not allowed, but it wasn't the tone of that particular funeral, by any means). I guess it's just important to remember there is no right way to grieve.

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