by Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director
It happened again recently: someone used the word “if” instead of “when” in referring to their certain, though hopefully distant, death.
Sometimes saying “if I die” is appropriate. Maybe you are going to attempt some death-defying acrobatic routine and you want to make sure that your affairs are in order in case the stunt fails.
However, I notice that it is pretty common for people to use the phrase “if I die” when what they really mean is “when I die.” They use “if I die” as if they might, in fact, be someone who won’t die.
Our death – at some point – is certain. Benjamin Franklin humorously reminded us of this with his famous quote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But we tend to share Franklin’s quote when we are talking about taxes … not so much in talking about death.
Don’t misunderstand me. Death and dying is a hard journey to walk. Talking about death and dying is also difficult; it is easy to understand why we avoid it.
Death and dying are scary! We are afraid of all the emotions…the sadness, the regrets, the losses, the missed opportunities. We fear the depth of our own grief. We feel guilt and shame over the past. We regret unresolved conflicts and damaged relationships. We fear our own mortality. We fear the unknown that is death itself.
So, it is easy to avoid…especially when you are younger…and death seems so far away. Death, however, can come at any age and at any time. Should we all not be better prepared for it?
If you hang around with older people, as I do because of both my age and my work, you would expect to find the discussion of death and dying to be easier and more common. This has not been my experience. I have been surprised to find that people, who simply by their chronological age are nearer to the end of their life, are no more willing or able to talk about death than people who, with luck, are decades away from it. My experience is that even older people spend quite a bit of time avoiding the discussion. I find this all the more tragic given that there is, proportionally, less time left.
While I understand the hesitance, it is still confusing to me. We are a culture of boot straps, self-determination and control. And we have clear feelings about how we want to die. Stanford University’s School of Medicine reports that 80% of Americans indicate they want to die at home, but only 20% do so. Clearly there is a disconnect between what people want in dying and what they actually experience. Why is that? Because the fear of death is stronger than the desire for choice and self-determination.
I – and others – believe that the first step in overcoming the fear, and then getting the death you want, is to be able to talk more easily about death with family and friends. From his experiences around the topic of death and dying, entrepreneur and activist, Michael Hebb concluded that how we end our lives, “was the most important and costly conversation America was not having.” His response was to create the organization Death Over Dinner.
The goal of Death Over Dinner is to facilitate the creation of spaces for dialogue about death and dying and provide resources to make the conversation easier and more accessible. Since 2014, there have been over 100,000 “death dinners” around the globe. The model is successful because, according to information on the organization’s website, “the dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity.” They have found that rather than being morbid discussions, they are life giving and life-affirming. A “death dinner” provides a serious, but not somber
Death Over Dinner is not the only resource to help people get more comfortable talking about death and dying. My Gift of Grace and The Conversation Game offered by Dying Matters are two games that help foster discussion.
All of these resources are grounded in the belief that death causes greater suffering when either we don’t communicate our wishes, or we don’t know how to honor the wishes of our loved one(s). In building greater comfort in talking about death and dying, we will all suffer less when faced with death.
There is also the belief that if we are better with handling death, we will be more present and engaged with life. We will recognize the gift of life for whatever time we will each have.
That may be the greatest gift that death can teach us.