Resourcing the conversation about death and dying

It is sometimes said that talking about death is the last taboo.

A 2016 survey by the Dying Matters coalition found that 30% of those interviewed felt uncomfortable talking about death with family or friends, only 35% had made a will and just 25% had talked about their end of life wishes with anyone else. 45% said that talking and thinking about death seemed to bring it closer, and 15% actually said that they felt that making any end of life plans could make death happen.

And yet we know that death will come to us all: some would call it the one certainty of life. So why can’t we even talk about what we know we cannot avoid? The poet William Butler Yeats identifies an awareness of our own mortality as being unique to human beings, something that may cause us dread and yet which we need to confront:

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all…
Man has created death.

Death, by WB Yeats

The advantages of thinking and talking about death are obvious on several levels:

  • Emotionally, people may need support in all sorts of ways – whether themselves dying, or caring for someone who is, or experiencing bereavement. And providing or giving support requires a degree of openness and honesty in communication. If we cannot talk with another person about what is happening, how can either of us provide support to the other?
  • If we hope to be cared for in a particular way, or perhaps to see certain people again, or even just to have particular hymns at our funeral, how are these things to happen unless we express those wishes?
  • There are many practical steps that can be taken in advance, some of which (like making a will and a Lasting Power of Attorney) can be of huge significance both to the person doing the planning and their loved ones, but none of which will get done if we keep putting them off.

So resources for talking about the end of life are valuable and relevant to us all, not just to those already in the last days of life or who may be ministering to others in hospitals, hospices or care homes. As Keith Albans says in his Personal view (link below), “learning to speak naturally about death is something which both the church and wider society have failed to take seriously for too long”.