Let’s Talk about Dying (and Living)

This week’s blog is a bit of a change of pace.  Don’t worry, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled programming next week.  However, National Healthcare Decision Day is this coming Monday–April 16th.  I think that this project is incredibly important, so today’s blog is in support of the goal of beginning or improving conversations about end of life.

I know, I know–this topic may cause you to want to dodge this post.  The reaction that many people have to thinking or talking about death is to not think or talk about it.  But today, I want to ask you to hang in here with me.  I want you to think about aging, or getting sick, even to think about dying.  I want you to think about those things that make your life worth living.  I want to you to think about the impact that your openness (or lack thereof) in talking about illness and dying might have on the people who love you.  Because here’s the deal–this is not an issue that we get to skip.  As one writer said (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the quote or the attribution), “Despite incredible advances in medical technology, the mortality rate after being born is still 100%.”

We are all going to die.  So are all the people that we love.  That’s true, and it’s hard to swallow sometimes.  But I firmly believe that if we are able to talk about this, instead of shoving these truths into a box in our heads, we can actually build lives that are richer, more connected, and more full of meaning.

I know that this is a sensitive topic.  Just the suggestion that physicians be able to be compensated for taking time to really explore end of life options with their patients led to a national panic about “death panels.”  A nurse in Arizona was fired after educating a patient about hospice options.  No one is sure whose responsibility these conversations are.  Should doctors be talking to patients?  When?  At diagnosis?  As part of routine treatment in primary care?  In an ER or intensive care unit?  Should religious leaders be talking to congregations?  Is this the responsibility of hospice professionals?  Should parents be talking to children?  Or should adult children introduce the topic with their parents?

I think that the right answer is “all of the above.”  The more times and places that we are talking about how we would like things to go if we become sick or injured in a critical way, the more likely it is that our wishes can be honored.  And if we have nifty tools like advance directives, living wills, and healthcare powers of attorney in place, we’re reducing the burden on our families.

Some of you reading this may say, “But talking about dying is morbid.”  Or perhaps, “Acknowledging that I might have a terminal illness means giving up hope.”  Here’s my response to that.  As I said earlier–dying is inevitable.  Death, and all of the challenges and decisions that arise while dying and after death, is something that we will all face, for ourselves and for loved ones.  Since that is true, I’m suggesting that perhaps having conversations about aging, and illness, and yes, even about dying is one way to engage with how we want to live.  Recognizing that our time is limited reminds us to cherish our relationships, to be careful about how we spend our time.

So my challenge to you this week is this–take a look at the NHDD website.  Poke around.  Check out their questions.  And maybe, on Monday, sit down with someone you love and begin a conversation.  As you do so, be open to the possibility that maybe talking about death is the ultimate affirmation of life.

Not sure how to start?  Here are a few more resources:

Elaine Waples shares Dr. Susan Block’s “four perfect questions” for exploring serious health situations

Kathy Kastner’s Best Endings tool

Aging With Dignity’s Five Wishes too

Dr. Peter Saul’s TEDxNewy talk about “Dying in the 21st Century”

And if you aren’t sure how to get the ball rolling, but you want to give it a try, you can always stop by the End of Life Conversations Tweetchat (#EOLchat) on Thursday evenings at 8:30 pm CST.

Have you had these talks already?  If so how did they go?  If not, what’s holding you back?



Image Credit: Cemetery Carpet by K.Kendall via Flickr

FTC Disclosure: I do not have any professional or affiliate links with the resources that I shared in this article, I just think that they’re helpful for starting conversations.  I am the moderator of the #EOLchat, which is a volunteer position, with no financial benefit. I think that covers it all. 🙂

12 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about Dying (and Living)

    1. Kim,

      I believe that we can always talk more. Particularly since our thoughts and wishes are probably going to evolve as we go through life. I hope that your conversation goes well!


  1. Hi Ann – Working in a Cancer Center for four years made this topic something I learned alot about. But many ppl did not want to talk abt it at all. So, it is tricky, it seems we are not wired to want to bring awareness of our death into our consciousness (is it our society?) ..anyway..I agree there s/b awareness & living wills, and it is difficult to engage ppl in this conversation.

    1. Kathy,

      I think that it is our culture. And I believe that culture can be changed–even if it is a long, slow process. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  2. Lovely thought provoking post. I think a lot about what might happen to my kids if something happened to me but I like to avoid thinking about how I might die, what I may and may not have control over AND I am a processy sort of person who like to talk about everything (professional hazard 🙂
    When I think about the people I have lost, I wish they had talked more about what they wanted and what was most important to them at the end of their lives. Thanks for pushing us to think about dying for the sake of our life and the lives of those we love most. Best, Allison

    1. Allison,

      I understand the risk of being a “processy sort of person.” And I hear you about having some sadness or regret for the fact that those I have lost often did not have conversations that would have allowed us to let them go feeling sure that their wishes had been met. I have become really passionate about supporting these conversations as an investment in closer families and more peaceful endings. Thank you for your thoughts.


  3. Thank you for this post, Ann. These conversations are never easy, and even being in a family in which several members are involved in death and dying through their work, we still haven’t worked out all the details of some advanced directives. It’s easier not to think about it, right? In any case, NHDD is important, and I’m glad you opened the conversation in such a sensitive and forthright way.

    1. Rachelle,

      It’s so nice to hear from you. I talk about these issues with lots of people and it’s not unusual for us to dodge these conversations–no matter what kind of work we do. Thank you so much for your thoughts.


  4. Hi Ann,

    I hope that your open acknowledgment of how difficult this topic is to face and your direct appeal to your readers to try to overcome their reluctance to think about death and dying will help you to get your message across. It is a very important topic and putting off having this conversation can lead to much anguish if we don’t know our loved ones’ wishes in the event that they are incapacitated and unable to speak for themselves. I have worked with a lot of clients who have difficulty letting go of guilt and self-blame about difficult end of life decisions that they had to make.

    Thank you for addressing this important topic.


    1. Andrea,

      Thank you–you cut right to the heart of what I was trying to achieve with this post. I have seen so much suffering during illness and mental pain after the death of a loved one that could have been avoided if the family had explored these issues earlier. I appreciate your thoughts and your perspective.


  5. Dear Ann,
    Thanks so much for this useful and provocative post. It is so important to have these discussions all through life, not just as we approach old age. Losses that I’ve experienced personally and through my clients have proven to me that we never know how long we have. Our church is holding a workshop on using the Five Wishes next week. We are hoping that others besides the elderly will attend!

    1. Carolyn,

      That concept of “not knowing how long we have” is what drives my passion for thinking and talking about these issues. I’d love to hear how the workshop goes. I also hope that there’s a good age range represented–these issues touch all of us. Maybe younger folks can have conversations with their loved ones.


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