The English philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote “It is as natural to die as it is to be born” and yet, when the end of life draws near for us or for a loved one, the subject of death can feel incredibly difficult to broach. This reality is not our fault, as facing our mortality is a cultural taboo that we have carried for many generations, but breaking the silence that surrounds the end of life is hugely important. Communicating around this delicate topic is important for peace of mind as practical questions are resolved but it also offers the invaluable opportunity to create meaningful connection and a sense of togetherness in the face of grief. In bringing the value of our relationships to the forefront we can create as much joy and optimism as possible in balance with the uncertainty and sadness that comes with parting from those we care about.
Finding Presence Through Preparation
A British survey in 2014 found that just over half of respondents with a partner knew what their partner’s end of life wishes would be, while only 6% of those surveyed had written down their own wishes. This disparity between need and awareness can be found all over the world but increasingly charities such as Dying Matters in the UK and The Conversation Project in the US have campaigned to encourage us all to break down these cultural barriers and share our wishes and intentions with our loved ones, in order to avoid the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.
We all know from experience that anxious feeling that comes with leaving important issues unresolved and such feelings are the last thing we need when a person approaches the end of their life, or a family grapples with the loss of a loved one. Having a sense that one’s wishes are known offers great comfort, as does knowing that paperwork is in order. We would not hesitate to open an insurance policy to protect ourselves in case of a car accident – this would not be considered morose or pessimistic – and so we must not mistake the end of life preparations as a negative action.
Formal Preparations To Put In Place
When faced with difficult emotions it can be difficult to know where to begin, but with a little planning, we can navigate, step by step, through the practical aspects of establishing the end of life wishes. Beginning this process well ahead of necessity will significantly lessen the emotional burden of making tough decisions.
Making A Will
It can be deeply reassuring to layout our wishes for our property and assets, knowing that we have done what we can to help those we will leave behind.
Power Of Attorney
A point may come when we are no longer able to make practical decisions for ourselves, and bestowing this ability to a loved one offers us confidence that all will be taken care of should such a time arise.
Exploring Financial Aid
Discovering what aid and support are available means that you will be able to call on all resources with confidence should you need them. For example, some people caring for a loved one may be entitled to claim a Carer’s Allowance, and, as many face financial difficulties following a bereavement; there are also various bereavement benefits available to those who are eligible.
Making A Living Will
In a Living Will, we outline our end of life wishes. This can mean expressing the hope to die at home or in a hospice, choosing whether we might wish to refuse treatment in certain circumstances, who should be consulted over our medical care if we are not able to make decisions for ourselves and even specifics such as our diet, or what types of music we would like to listen to. Age UK offers advice on making a Living Will, and your doctor or carer will also be able to guide you through this process.
Outlining Funeral Wishes
When we lose a loved one, we hope to honour them in a way that does them justice. Discussing our wishes for our own funeral and clarifying our spiritual or religious beliefs can offer great comfort as the ritual of remembering and saying goodbye to a loved one is as meaningful as it can be.
Our Own Form Of Meaningful Connection
Just as we all grieve differently, we also discover different forms of comfort as we approach the end of our time together. It is important to be open to connection, whether we find happiness in reminiscing, exploring old memories and photographs, recording chapters of our lives for future generations to share in; or discussing our fears and hopes, and dreams with those who will carry these memories forwards in their own journeys. Talking about fear can be upsetting, but sharing our fears can also make them far easier to face.
We are always stronger when we feel that we are not alone, and while we may not always have the chance to say the things we wish we could, choosing to say what we can holds great power.
New Orleans based artist Candy Chang created an inspiring art project called “Before I die” back in 2011. The project began as the reclaimed wall of an abandoned house covered in fill-in-the-blank lines beginning with the phrase “Before I die, I want to…” inviting passers-by to complete the sentences in chalk with whatever musings they wish.
Today there are more than 4,000 walls like this around the world and some of Chang’s favourite answers include:
“Before I die I want to be completely myself” (New Orleans, USA)
“Before I die I want to stare at the stars with the people I love” (Pohang City, South Korea) and
“Before I die I want to stop being afraid” (Jerusalem, Israel).
Reflecting back on the project Chang said “Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life.” With this sentiment in mind I encourage us all to recognise that while talking about the end of life might be the hardest conversation to begin, it’s content may be the most meaningful we can encounter, and that is certainly not something to be afraid of.