Why talking about death is good for you

August 2, 2015
KERRIE NOONAN
KERRIE NOONAN

If the subject of death is having a bit of a revival, it’s partly thanks to Kerrie Noonan, the Australian behind Dying to Know Day, held annually on August 8.  She’s on a mission to get people talking about death, to make plans, make their wishes known, and be better prepared to help loved ones through their own dying. “It’s no longer true to say death is a taboo subject,” she told me. “People do want to talk about it.”

Since the Victorian era, when death and funerals were celebrated with some theatricality, death has spent aeons in the closet. It was a morbid subject, best not talked about. But in recent years, it seems to me, death has come out. Death is having its day in the sun.

The “death cafe” movement, for example, brings people to their local cafe to talk about death. In the UK, a “festival of death and dying” includes dozens of events, from poetry readings to sessions on “green funerals.” A slew of books about dying, including the celebrated Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, has flown off the shelves. Social media has played its part. More than a million people followed Simon Scott, a US reporter, as he posted on Twitter a real-time account of his mother’s dying hours, including her death-bed wit.

Thousands of newspaper readers have followed the moving account by Oliver Sachs, the famed neurologist/writer, as he comes to terms with his own impending death. Recently American mortician, Caitlin Doughty, appeared on the Q&A panel on ABC television to talk matter-of-factly about dead bodies. And this year’s Dying to Know Day, the third held, will see 70 events hosted by grass roots community groups designed to encourage conversation, planning, and information exchange. Did you know, for instance, you can keep a dead body at home for some days if you want?

So if death talk is in the zeitgeist, why was I somewhat reluctant to meet Kerrie Noonan at a workshop last week? Was the topic too morbid to tackle after my holiday, too close after the death of a dear friend last month, or was I just feeling…. “not death again”? With her feathery earrings, two-toned, black and henna hair, and ready smile, Kerrie was not what I expected of a person immersed in death talk. What was I expecting? The Grim Reaper?

“I’ve been interested in death since my nanna died when I was a child,” she told me. As a teenager, she volunteered with Camp Quality which helps children living with cancer. Later she became a clinical psychologist, and at the age of 25, a bereavement counsellor. She now works in palliative care.

But five years ago she co-founded The Groundswell Project which runs workshops on “death literacy;” later Dying to Know Day was launched to spread knowledge and prompt reflection.  Do you know the difference between an Enduring Guardian and a Power of Attorney, for example? And have you ever reflected on what’s most important to you if you were dying – maintaining your dignity, having a doctor you can trust, dying at home, managing the fears of your family? Have you talked about these things with anyone? Groundswell has come up with ten things you ought to know about death.

In this era of extended life, and often drawn-out, high-tech dying, most of us would like some control over the process. Most of us don’t want to leave our affairs in a mess, or family members at war. It makes sense to confront the psychological and practical aspects of dying, and to keep reviewing our preferences to the end. It’s not weird to talk about death and to make plans. It’s sensible to bring death into the everyday.

When I saw my dying friend in London recently it was such a relief to see she was so clear-eyed about death. She’d had time to think and plan and make her wishes known. She left precise instructions about where her ashes were to be spread. It wasn’t a pretty dying – it rarely is in my experience. It was boring, taking too long for her, and not as pain-free and comfortable as she’d hoped. But we could laugh, be honest, and I could tell her what she meant to me.

“Talking more about death is part of reducing the fear of death,” Kerrie said. “But so is taking action like putting your hand up to help out when a friend or neighbour is dying.”

Baby boomers may be partly responsible for the new willingness to talk about death. As they move through their 60s, friends are dying and so are their parents. Some baby boomers may think they’ll live forever and are stuck in death denial. But others are all too aware of their mortality, and want a good death. “Baby boomers, more than anyone, have seen people die hooked up to machines,” Kerrie said. “They’ve experienced the benefits of medical technology, and the terror of people being kept alive.”

If death talk is a little more respectable these days, there’s still work to be done. Kerrie says 75 per cent of Australians have not had end-of-life discussions with their loved ones, 45 per cent die without a a will, and less than five per cent have end-of-life plans.

So talking is not enough, action is needed. But talking is a good start.

What’s your experience of talking – or not talking – about death? Please leave a comment.

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