Death and dying: It's good to talk
Death, dying and bereavement have been all around us in the news recently – with many high profile individuals speaking out about their loss. But what has come of these interviews and how can we change attitudes to talking about the unthinkable?
Former England footballer Rio Ferdinand's powerful documentary Being Mum and Dad explored the tragic loss of his wife and the mother of his three children and how he and his family dealt with their grief. Additionally, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry were widely praised for revealing how they struggled in the wake of their mother's death, now almost twenty years ago. Prince Harry particularly has discussed how he coped, by taking up boxing to deal with his anger and later seeking counselling.
Much of the positive response to these stories has picked up on the fact that, in talking about their struggles, these famous faces are publicly breaking down the concept of the British "stiff-upper lip". In times past, it was probably more normal for people to keep quiet about their grief, putting on a brave face rather than owning up to their true feelings.
People might think that the first thing to do after a death is to start gathering papers, contacting banks and building societies, tracking down a Will and instructing solicitors in the administration of the estate. Whilst that is important – and can help people to cope in the first few days by giving them something to focus on – it is also vital that people are taking time to address their feelings and, if they want to, seek support. Things like arranging a funeral which truly represents the wishes of the person who has died and contacting friends and family to share memories should take precedence: the legal forms can always be filled out later.
It's also not just people who have been bereaved who will benefit from talking about their situation. Everyone should think about having a conversation with friends and family about their eventual death. This might include telling people about your funeral wishes and whether you want to be buried or cremated. You can also let close family and friends know what you would like to happen to your estate upon your death as well as ensuring your wishes are properly included in your Will. Do you want to give a treasured item to someone in particular for them to remember you by? Would you like to make a donation to a charity on your death? Is there also anything you don't want to happen – like certain people not benefitting from your estate?
You should also think about your wishes for any end-of-life care. You may have strong feelings about being kept alive artificially or in what circumstances you would want to accept or decline medical treatment. One way to do this is to appoint Attorneys under a Lasting Power of Attorney for Health and Care and to let them know your wishes. You can also give them the power to consent to or refuse life-sustaining treatment on your behalf.
There is no doubt that these can be difficult conversations to have, particularly if you yourself are facing an illness. Relatives or friends of someone who is unwell may also shy away from bringing this up, perhaps feeling awkward or worrying that they will cause distress. This week is the Dying Matters Awareness Week, which aims to help people talk more openly about death and dying. They have guidance to start such conversations here. There are also lots of charities and organisations which provide support to those facing illnesses or who have been bereaved, such as Cruse Bereavement Care and WAY: Widowed and Young.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to dying and bereavement and everyone's experiences and needs will be different. However, talking about death in advance, opening up to your feelings of grief after someone close to you dies, or just listening to someone who wants to talk, might be better than keeping a "stiff-upper-lip".