Is Death Really Something No One Wants to Talk About?
Time and again I have heard people say; “No one wants to talk about death”. Lately, I have questioned whether that is true? Really true. Has that honestly been my experience? Perhaps it is the way an invitation to the conversation is being offered that is more often the issue, and therefore prevents it from having the opportunity to even begin.
Perhaps it is about the context in which the invitation is offered. When it feels safe to share and there is someone present who respectfully listens, with true compassion, people tend to open quite profoundly.
My background is in hospice. That journey started over thirty years ago, initially as a hospice volunteer which later led to a variety of professional roles within different hospice societies. In the fall of 2017, I launched “In Autumn’s Cocoon” to offer workshops and talks to help educate both the public and professionals on key end of life themes.
It is not unusual when out in the world, engaged in general activities, hobbies and travelling, that if I choose to mention my work in end-of-life care inevitably a story will be shared by the person I am speaking to. A personal story about the impact of a recent death or life story of a loved one who has just died. A caregiver speaking of a family member who is ill or another dealing with a life threatening illness they are presently engaged in. Through the challenges, woven between the words, there is love story after love story heard. Often people will ask “How can you do that kind of work? It must be depressing”. The deeper truth is that though it can be demanding at times there is also great beauty experienced and inspiration gleaned. So many people working in different forms of end-of-life care will tell you the same. The human spirit is amazing, and love has the capacity to transcend the fear in ways that can take your breath away. There is a privilege to the work that each is invited into.
Part of the reason I started “In Autumn’s Cocoon” was in response to many requests over the years from individuals to learn. When I was the Program Director for one of the hospice societies (years ago now) I would consistently get calls from a range of professionals and those facing end of life, wanting to know if they could take the hospice volunteer training. They could not find anywhere else to go to take a class about death, dying and the basics of grief. The “elders” who we formerly depended upon to share that wisdom within our communities, historically, were not easily or no where to be found. Unfortunately, I too had to turn them away at that time. Unless they wanted to commit to hospice volunteering for a longer period, I could not offer the training due to limited space and resources. It was surprising to discover the number of professionals thrown into these circumstances and conversations (including counsellors and teachers) who were not given proper preparation. Compassion was felt for their struggle. Our hospice volunteers received better training than most of them!
Back in the late nineties the initial book proposal for my now self -published book titled Honoring the Mystery; Uplifting Insights from the Language, Visions, and Dreams of the Dying was shopped to over 21 New York publishing houses and rejected by all. Many of the comments from the publishers at the time stated that they liked the idea, were hesitant to take a risk on a first-time author but also explained that it had been their experience that books on death were hard to market.
As the years progressed, deeper life lessons unfolded through my hospice work and the death of my husband to cancer. The stories in my book became enriched with broader life experience. Before publishing I did a lot of research and noticed that many books on the subject were long and often hard to get through. It has also been proven that when grief or high emotion is at play it is difficult for many people to read a lot of material. So, I decided to keep the book small and highlight, simple, heartfelt stories to speak to those in need. Purposefully designed not to be too “heady”. Just enough to give gentle insights of support but focused mainly on the stories to speak to the heaviness so often felt in the heart during this tender time of transition. Those who have read Honoring the Mystery have been grateful for the inspiring stories shared.
In our current times we are seeing more books and podcasts on the subject being highlighted. Another promising example of the many individuals now seeking to learn about death and in turn life itself.
My affirmed conclusion is therefore that people do want to talk about death, when offered a sincere invitation and safe context. Is there initial resistance to a theme that can stir fear and uncertainty? Absolutely and rightfully so! But when held with love, compassion and care, rich conversation will often result and new insights gained.
It has always been my intent to reflect on new and better ways to invite the conversation that so many secretly crave and create ways to share my rich life experience in support. To help each of us be seen in life, death, and our combined grief. To carefully hold with respect and learn from the endless love stories told allowing life to become enriched and remind us of the profound gift it is.