Why go there?

Charles 5 Comments



“If we want the deaths our lives deserve, we need to start talking about it,” advises a Times leader today.

Yes, it’s Dying Matters Awareness week and all Funeralworld is a-flutter with wheezes to “start the conversation” and encourage people to make a will, jot down their end-of-life wishes and their funeral wishes, even sort out their digital legacy.

As ever, the narrative from Dying Matters is that “discussing dying and making end of life plans remain a taboo for many people.” A possible problem here is that the stats supporting this statement offer comfort to the ‘deniers’ by showing them they are with the majority. Most people, after all, want to be where everybody else is.

And, by gum, the deniers constitute a big majority: 83% of people say they are uncomfortable discussing dying and death. 51% say they are unaware of their partner’s end of life wishes. 63% haven’t written a will. 64% haven’t registered as an organ donor or got a donor card. 71% of people haven’t let someone know their funeral wishes. 94% haven’t written down their wishes or preferences about their future care, should they be unable to make decisions for themselves.

If you reckon it important for people to get their death admin sorted, the present state of affairs is dire. But Dying Matters reckons that 400,000 more people aged 5-75 are talking about this unappetising stuff now than 5 years ago. This, surely, ought to be the headline figure. No one wants to feel left behind.

The difficulty in chivvying people to ‘get their shit together’ is, of course, that it brings them face to face with the terrifying fact of their own extinction:

A week? or twenty years remain
And then–what kind of death?
A losing fight with frightful pain
Or a gasping fight for breath?

There’s this comfy consensus among people in the death business that if you can bring yourself to confront your fear of dying your fears will magically melt away and your life will be gloriously enriched. It ain’t necessarily so. On the contrary, thinking about death can magnify the terror – why wouldn’t it?

For the end is likely to be disagreeable. Sherwin Nuland, in his book How We Die, wrote: “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die. The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.”

Nuland wrote his book 20 years before his death in March this year. Did the contemplation of his own mortality induce equable acceptance? Here’s an extract from his obit in The Times:

It is not given to many of us to set the stage for our own demise. For the surgeon and medical ethicist Sherwin Nuland, author of the bestselling How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, the climax of his personal drama, with the audience watching intently and the curtain poised to fall, had been scripted years before and never needed revision. Yet when the time came, Nuland was reluctant to play the part, remaining in the wings, unsure of his lines, not ready to make his last entrance.

According to his daughter Amelia, he talked incessantly about what was happening to him. “I’m not scared of dying,” he told her, “but I’ve built such a beautiful life and I’m not ready to leave it.” Finally, as the end drew near, he seemed “scared and sad”, as if the morbidity of his lifelong preoccupation had, somewhat ironically, rendered him unable to confront the reality.

If only talking about it really did earn us “the deaths our lives deserve” and, in the words of Mayur Lakhani, chair of the Dying Matters Coalition,  “enable people to become more comfortable in discussing dying, death and bereavement.”

But if not talk, what else is there?



  1. Charles

    I’m feeling really encouraged by the amount of coverage on national radio that Dying Matters Awareness has achieved just this morning – Chris Evans Breakfast Show and Woman’s Hour had a brilliant interview with Ben Brooks-Dutton who was left a widower after 14 months of marriage and with a young son to bring up http://lifeasawidower.com/

    It feels like a massive leap forward from last year, maybe I’m just tuned to it this year, but I think it’s changing. Talking doesn’t make it happen, it doesn’t make it go away, and we all fear the ‘moment’ but talking before helps those who are left to get it right, it helps dissipate the doubts of what would they have wanted…

    I love that ‘get your shit together’ website – simple – just DO IT!

  2. Charles

    Fair point Charles that there’s no logical or intuitive reason why talking about death should neccessarily make the fears go away. But that’s surely not all of the point. Being prepared to discuss the end of one’s life can be enormously helpful to one’s family, at both a practical and emotional level – though it’s hardly likely to be a jolly chat! (If it is too jolly, maybe it’s time to be worried…)

    In his book :”Staring At The Sun.” existential psychologist Irving D Yalom states his case that talking about the end of life can free people from a fear of death so powerful that it is dysfunctional in their social and emotional lives.

    Perhaps we should not expect only one thing from talking about death – it may be upsetting, it may not help us face our own extinction, it may help us accept our extinction, it may make us feel more at peace with the fact of our mortality, it may help our families, it may be depressing, it may be liberating,take your pick, as it were.

    I do think doing nothing is no help to anyone. If you can’t bear to discuss it, or your nearest and dearest can’t bear it, then maybe at least write some stuff down and tell ’em where to find it?

    I’m with Evelyn – just do it!


  3. Charles

    Well, I have to say that I completely agree with both of you, especially you, GM, when you say “I do think doing nothing is no help to anyone.” Yes a smack of rigour, as exemplified in your excellent, testy blog — and by Richard and Judy’s declared intention to do each other in. Two words I didn’t use were ‘duty’ and ‘sanction’. Duty’s such an outdated word now, isn’t it? And why not a sanction? Make collecting your pension conditional on having got your s**t together including ADRT, LPA and a sum of money set aside in an ISA. As soon as you’ve done it you can scrunch your eyes tight shut again and get on with the rest of your life.

    1. Charles

      All very well for those who have money to set aside…but I won’t start beating that particular drum again now:-)

      Speaking as someone who has/had (it varies) that crippling fear of death, as some of you know, my experience has been that not ‘dealing with it’ in some form or another is just not an option. I genuinely would have become dysfunctional (as I briefly did when I was about 16). My whole life, from theology degree to funeral home has been an exercise in attempting to stare death in the face. It does not make the fear go away, but it does allow the possibility of living with it…making peace with it almost.

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