by Dr Gemima Fitzgerald, Clinical Psychologist / Bereavement Lead
Between 8th-13th May 2017 it’s Dying Matters week. Rowans Hospice will be hosting a series of events to get people talking about our theme which is “Live Well NOW, because Dying Matters.” We have Dying Matters week for a reason. The reason is that talking about dying is difficult, and uncomfortable, and so we want to try to make it a bit easier.
Of course, no one has to talk about dying. For many, it’s a subject they would rather ignore. Denial is a powerful defence mechanism. We all know that death is inevitable. From the moment of conception, it’s the only thing that’s guaranteed in our future. And yet…. surveys have shown that as many as 1 in 8 people think they are immortal; I’m not talking about a belief in an after-life here, but simply believing that they will somehow avoid death.
From the moment in childhood when we become aware of death, we do everything in our power to avoid the feeling of terror that this provokes
Terror Management Theory states that from the moment in childhood when we become aware of death, we do everything in our power to avoid the feeling of terror that this provokes in us. This ‘terror’ can be managed in many ways; for example, by spirituality, religion, finding meaning in life, by leaving a ‘legacy’ – such as having children or a career that has left its mark, or by avoidance (simply blocking out the thoughts of the fact that one day we will die). I understand why people avoid the subject of dying. It can be really scary to think about it.
However, is avoidance really the best way to find peace? Today, 2000 of your brain cells will die and will never be replaced. So, whether we avoid it or not, the dying process is happening for us all; right now. Cheerful stuff eh?!
Do you remember last year when it seemed like loads of celebrities were dying? There was David Bowie, Terry Wogan, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, to name but a few. So many people were really upset by what seemed to be an epidemic of celebrities dying, many unexpectedly.
I overheard conversations about dying. But often the conversations didn’t ‘go anywhere’
I was saddened by this too. It’s a shock when celebrities we have grown up with die; if people haven’t experienced the bereavement of someone close to them before, this might be the first time death has come so close, which in itself can be really shocking. It reminded us that death is inescapable for everyone, however rich and successful they are. Above all it reminded us of our own mortality. People were shocked and afraid. It seemed that everywhere I went, in the supermarket, in pubs, in the post office, I overheard conversations about dying. But often the conversations didn’t ‘go anywhere’. They didn’t feel containing or comforting, or hopeful in any way. They instead expressed fear, sadness, a sense of resignation and at times anger at the apparent injustice of death, as if it is something that ‘shouldn’t happen’ to these people. It made me even more passionate to help people talk about living and dying in a way that was helpful and hopeful.
So, why do we need to talk about dying? Why are we at Rowans Hospice running a campaign called “Live Well NOW, because Dying Matters”?
Talking about dying can help us to think about the life we want for the remainder of time we have left.
Well because actually, having well-managed conversations about dying, and gently facing the concept of our own mortality now can enhance our lives and help us to live better in many ways. It can: encourage us to re-evaluate what is important so that we live in accordance with our core values; help us to consider how we want the rest of our lives to be and the legacy we will leave behind; help us develop a better work-life balance; help us cherish the ones we love; and help us to spend time thinking about our spiritual beliefs and what will make us feel most fulfilled.
When we feel more prepared for something, we tend to feel less anxious or uncertain.
Talking about dying can help us to think about the life we want for the remainder of time we have left, as well as the death we want. It can also help us to feel more prepared. When we feel more prepared for something, we tend to feel less anxious or uncertain. This in turn might help us to feel less of the ‘terror’ about death that I mentioned above.
Dame Cicely Saunders, who founded modern hospice care philosophy, went further to suggest our death should be an “intensely personal achievement for the individual”, something which is seen not as a defeat, but as something we can achieve and make our own. A major role of modern hospice care is to help people talk about what matters to them in life as an individual, which will help us live a good life now and put the preparatory steps in place to ensure we have a good death.
Life is so precious. It is also very short. Remembering this is sobering. It can be scary. But it also enhances life.
During Dying Matters week, we are hosting a series of events to gently encourage conversations about life and death, including Grave Talk with our Spiritual Care Chaplain Carol Gully. It is designed to be lighthearted and a fun way, using games, to open conversations around the topic. You are invited to be a part of this. No one will be putting any pressure on anyone to talk about things they don’t want to talk about. But I sincerely hope that we will create an atmosphere that is full of warmth, encouragement, humour, sensitivity and compassion. We are all human beings together. Let’s support each other as much as we can, in life and in death. Because you matter.