No Need to Fear the D Word
There are apparently at least 200 euphemisms for dying and death in the English language.
These alternative words and expressions do a great disservice to those who hear it because they reinforce the taboo around end of life matters which stops us being open, honest and comfortable about this important and natural stage of our life cycle.
Why are Euphemisms Necessary?
Those who use euphemisms are probably more uncomfortable talking about death than the person they assume they are protecting by not saying dying or death.
In my experience care as a funeral celebrant, staff at care homes often tip toe around the subject – they are too quick to say they don’t want to upset the people they look after or offend the families.
Where is the real evidence –not anecdotes and excuses – that older people do not want to discuss these matters? Or at the very least feel they could raise a question or concern in the place where they live with the people they trust every day with their safety, health and wellbeing?
Not all families have the relationship which fosters an open honest discussion about dying matters so it is even more valuable that care home staff are approachable and people in their care and their relatives can express or share their views, wishes and worries.
Matters unsaid remain matters unresolved.
Open Discussion About Death is Better
It is possible to be sensitive and compassionate when saying dying and death in a conversation. All it takes is a bit of common sense. It absolutely is not a blanket approach for all. Every one of us is an individual and we have our own unique thoughts, beliefs, values, views and preferences on all aspects of our life and death.
Tailor it to the Individual
A relative or health and social care professional should know the person well enough to be able to anticipate whether someone is open or resistant to discussion about dying and death matters.
When to have the chat
Timing is important. You may feel it would be better to have a general catch up conversation which refers to something in the news that day – such as the death of a high profile person and follow up with an open question (to tee up a more expansive answer than a straight yes or no) to find out the person’s view. Or feel you need to sit down together and have a focused conversation, for example about their wishes if they were too ill to speak for themselves, or Lasting Power of Attorney or whether they want to be an organ donor or how they would finance nursing care if it was ever needed.
Let the conversation flow in whatever direction it takes and try not to get answers to all the points you want answered in one conversation. It is better to approach this topic in stages if it makes it more palatable for the person you are discussing this with.
Where to have the chat
You may feel the privacy and company of home is the best place to broach a particular issue or death related topic. Or the other person may respond more openly if they are in a group social setting where everyone is chipping in and they see that others are quite comfortable talking about it so they may contribute their views.
Listen and listen again. Sometimes what is not said can be just as revealing. Try to understand why the person may not be comfortable talking about it. They may be frightened, worried or think they are protecting you. Never ridicule what they think or say. Let them know it is okay and they are entitled to their views and you will do what you can to allay or address their concerns.
Humour can help
If it helps to not take the subject too seriously that is fine. In our family we have had a Sunday roast gathering and discussed what coffin design we would want to reflect who we are. We joked that dad’s would be an RAF theme and I would have to have a chocolate bar wrapper!
Why you want to chat
Sometimes being honest about your concerns or why you want to ensure the welfare and happiness of the person you love is respected and safeguarded can be persuasive for those who are resistant to talk. They recognise for example a parent may understand that they need to give reassurance or peace of mind to their children by discussing or putting in place their wishes or preferences for dying and death. They will see you are not being morbid – you are being loving.
Alternative to talk
If someone really doesn’t want to discuss what you want to talk about then respect that is their right and ask them instead to write down their thoughts, wishes or instructions so that when the time comes (it is a certainty in life) you can honour what they wanted. And make sure you know where they have recorded this!
Be a role model
By being open and relaxed talking about dying and death your own family and future generations will be influenced and adopt a similar approach. Explain to them why you feel it is important that you can talk about anything and everything.