In Australia, the 8th of August is ‘Dying to Know Day’. It’s a concept that a lot of people find confronting. People are encouraged to host events where they sit around and talk about, well, dying. Here’s a link:
I first became aware of it about six or seven years ago. I met someone on a course who was involved in organising a kind of coffee-and-nice-chat-about-death event. At the time I was both surprised and curious. I didn’t have any objection to talking about death but I didn’t understand why we needed a day for it. She explained that some years before she had experienced the still birth of her first child. The event had left her devastated in a way that I am certain can only be understood by a woman who has lived through nine months of pregnancy and expectation only to be given such crushingly sad news.
She told me that one of the most difficult things was finding anyone prepared to talk with her about the death of her baby. People shut down, stayed away or changed the subject. This not only left her feeling isolated and unsupported, but feeling as if her child’s death meant nothing to other people; that it was best to just pretend she had never existed at all.
The Buddhists have an interesting approach to death. They believe that until we can honestly face the reality of our own existence (that we must all die) we cannot live a fulfilling life. They make the observation that those who have faced death, and understood the finite nature of all things, have a deeper appreciation of what really matters.
I worked as a police officer for many years. I saw more deaths than I can remember. All kinds of death. Babies that mysteriously stopped breathing, people that had been the victims of violence (often at the hands of someone they loved) and those that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve seen the bodies of very old people that passed away in care facilities with only a drawer full of possessions and I’ve seen the incredibly privileged and wealthy looking just as dead.
I’ve learnt about the death rituals of a handful of different cultures so that I didn’t cause offence. Some of these are very moving. The Jewish people all occupy a simple, rope handled coffin made of pine or particle board when they die. It’s a symbol that no matter how rich or clever or famous we were in life, we are all equal in death.
So you would have thought, having spent so much of my working life dealing with it, that death had no capacity to shock me.
And yet, when I received a diagnosis of a potentially terminal illness I went into shock. Of course I understood that I would die one day, but one day had always felt like it was a long way off, and that there was plenty of time to figure everything out when I got closer to it.
There are so many reasons why we need to talk about death. There’s the practical stuff, like how we feel about organ donation, and whether we’re okay with cremation. There’s the personal stuff, like what we want to have happen at our funeral and who we’d like to receive any accumulated wealth or possessions. These are the relatively easy conversations.
The more difficult ones are about where we would like to die and how we would like to die. Australia has a shortage of hospices and almost no support for those wishing to die at home, and yet most Australians do not want to die in a hospital. Hospitals are places where people go for treatment, where they get their recovery monitored and their drugs administered. They are not designed for dying. When more of us start thinking and talking about where and how we would like to die, this situation will improve. We’ll start talking to politicians about better funding for death services, so that we can have the kind of death we choose.
We might even see a change to laws that prevent people from seeking medical assistance to end their lives. I respect the opinions of those that would never make this choice and I understand all of their opposition to assisted dying. I promise to never force anyone to make that choice against their will, or their faith. I also ask them to extend to me the same respect for my own beliefs. I’ve seen what death from cancer can look like. I have no fear of death, it’s dying that terrifies me. I would like to be able to legally ask a doctor to speed that process up if I find myself caught in a low, slow, humiliating decline towards an inevitable outcome. It’s okay if you don’t agree with me. Just please don’t condemn me to the agony my father endured.
Death is frightening. By avoiding it we can stay floating in that delusional bubble where we behave as if we are going to live forever, and that’s precisely why we need to have the conversation. Life is short. None of us know the time or the manner of our death.
I contemplate death on a fairly regular basis now. I dodged a bullet, for now, but somewhere in my future there’s is another one with my name on it. There’s one for you too. Knowing this had made me very particular about how I spend my time. It’s much easier for me to be clear about who is important to me and what I want to do with whatever is left of my life. Death is helpful for that.
And so on the 8th of August I would invite you have a conversation with the people that love you about death. Talk about your death, and their death and whether or not any of you have ever seen death. Talk about where and how you would prefer to die and who you would like to be there (assuming you get a choice). Talk about the practicalities but don’t miss the opportunity to have a deep and honest conversation about why we don’t talk about death more often.
And why we should.