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?
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.
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:
- The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Katy Butler
- On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
- Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters In The End by Atul Gawande
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.