Let's talk about death

In Summary

• Modern medicine has become so intent on prolonging life and delaying death, even to the detriment of quality of life, it has forgotten how to support people to die. 

Medical staff carry a box at Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.
Medical staff carry a box at Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.
Image: REUTERS

Stop! Don’t flick to the next article. Indulge me for a moment please. What are you scared of?

Afraid of death? Frightened of dying? Of course you are. That’s normal. We all fear the unknown and death is probably the biggest unknown. So, your fear is justified.

But not talking or thinking about it won’t change the fact that we are all headed towards our own deaths. In fact, the dying process starts the minute we are born. With every heartbeat and every breath, death is closer.

And yet talking about death makes us so uncomfortable. We can’t even say the word “died” preferring to use euphemisms like “He passed away”, “She left us”, “They are no more”.

We are horrified at the thought of our own mortality. The death of our loved ones fills us with dread. We perceive death to be an unnatural part of our existence and yet there is nothing more natural than the circle of life and death. Death will happen. We just don’t want to think about it, talk about it or plan for it.

Modern medicine has become so intent on prolonging life and delaying death, even to the detriment of quality of life, it has forgotten how to support people to die. As a society we have forgotten the etiquette of how to support the dying and the bereaved.

We have lost our connection to death.

With us being in the grip of a global pandemic, our mortality is facing us squarely in our faces like never before. The lockdowns, curfews and quarantine restrictions that are being imposed on us by governments around the world are adding to these paralysing feelings of anxiety and a gripping sense of danger that surrounds us. We are so terrified of dying, that we are not even living fully.

Things need to change.

Firstly, we need to take away the fear of death. Demystifying and acknowledging death is hugely empowering and liberating.

Secondly, we have to change the dynamics of avoidance related to talking about death. Let’s open the dialogue so we can be more honest and comfortable about what matters to us about living and what matters to us most about dying. We should be engaging in conversations with each other and the older generation about how we and they want to die.

When speaking to elders or the terminally ill you can ask this simple question: "If you became too sick to speak for yourself, who would you like to speak for you?" This is a sensitive way to start a dialogue about death. Each and every one of us can change the way the world thinks and talks about dying by having one conversation at a time.

We all have different beliefs and we may never agree on what happens to us after we die. But this should not matter as we can definitely make the dying process more comfortable and compassionate, looking at death as a celebration, the next adventure, instead of an inevitable end.

I come to this from a very personal point of view. I will be forever grateful for my personal experience of walking the end of life journey with my husband Jeremy as he lay on his deathbed dying from cancer. For the last three days of his life we spoke openly about his dying, his funeral requests, his eulogy, his wishes for his ashes, as well as the legalities and practicalities that would follow his death. And, in the last few hours as he lay there dying, I held his hand and spoke to him, in an atmosphere of complete calm and peace until he died.

To have sat at Jeremy’s deathbed and watched him take his last breath was a deeply personal, profound and humbling experience. It is something that will stay with me until the day I die. To have honoured his requests after his death was a privilege. As I move forward every day, I do so without the fear of dying, but with the joy and excitement of living a fulfilling and meaningful life, not necessarily a long one.

My hope for you, is that when you face losing someone you love you can be truly present in that moment with courage and an open heart so you too can be witness to the sacred beauty and deeply personal experience of death. And, when thinking about your own mortality, you can do so with the strength of mind and wisdom that will take the fear away and allow you to live life fully and compassionately. Shalini Bhalla-Lucas is an accredited mindfulness teacher and an End of Life Doula working with people facing terminal illness.

Connect with Shalini on Facebook/Instagram @justjhoom or www.justjhoom.co.uk