Death is one of the taboo subjects, but there are many good reasons to think and talk about it. Here are a few.
Very few people want to think about death, especially in a personal context. If anyone talks about it they’re at risk of being considered weird.
Yet, whenever I’ve spoken to people about the death of their loved one it brings a wonderful sense of intimacy. Suddenly we’ve developed an enduring closeness, even if we don’t raise the subject again. Death brings up our deepest feelings of love, abandonment, relief, loss, anger, rage, guilt, peace and confusion, often in combination. Surely it is important to talk to someone when we’re experiencing such intense emotions. And what a privilege it is when someone connects with you in this way!
Watching life leave a body is extraordinary. It’s as though the person or animal has decided to let go – and there is no doubt that they’ve gone from their body. Then we are left with this shell which doesn’t feel like them anymore. But it’s the body of the one we loved, and we treat it respectfully and with the love we feel. We may or may not have a firm belief about where they go, but wherever it is, we send them with love. Perhaps its easier if there is a belief in a compassionate spirit world where they are going or to which we can send them.
Psychic friends have, unbidden, told me about my loved ones who have died. On one occasion after my uncle died he had a joke with me through a friend who is a medium. I had just come home to Melbourne after saying goodbye to him in hospital in Sydney, where he was dying from a rapidly progressing tumour in his lungs. His daughter had brought some whisky into the hospital for him but his health declined quickly. He died the next day and I had wondered and hoped that he’d had the strength to enjoy a whisky before he died. I hadn’t mentioned my uncle to my friend but when I saw her the next day she said, “He is here, he’s holding up a glass and saying: I’m having my whisky now.” Made me laugh. Good on him! It was lovely to experience his warmth and humour again and it made me feel that he hadn’t really gone too far.
Death is such a precious time. That’s not to say it’s pretty or fun. Certainly, it is often painful, especially if it’s a traumatic or unexpected death or if the person was distressed, angry or delirious leading up to their death. Even with deaths that are most ‘easy’ for us to accept, such as an older person who has lived a full and happy life, dying peacefully surrounded by loved ones, it can still be one of the most intense and sad times. Letting the person go can be the most generous thing you’ll ever do. This is a time not to be rushed. Take your time with the person and later, with the body. You will never have this time again.
Making your own plans
Consider carefully what you want for your own death. Planning is important and it’s worth talking to loved ones about what you both want in terms of end of life care and send off. Some people prefer to work through the medical model and the large funeral companies. The Natural Death Care Centre has an alternative model and provides education around dying, death and bereavement to give people greater choice and breadth of knowledge.
Many people would like to be able to die at home but careful planning is needed to ensure this is feasible as a person needing palliative care can require a lot of practical help. Community Palliative Care nurses can visit people at home once or twice a week to assist with pain management but government funded services into the home are limited. Consider whether the person’s social network can sustain around the clock care or if funds are available to pay for private support services. Residential palliative care is available in dedicated palliative care units, and in hospices and nursing homes, and there are a few day centres, which can provide day respite for carers.
Advance care plans
An Advance Care Plan enables you to leave clear instructions about the treatment you want to receive (or not) should you become incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes.
Advance Care Plan templates and discussion points are available online and can be left with your GP as well as your loved ones and those you’ve entrusted with powers of attorney. (There are powers of attorney kits; these can also be drawn up with a lawyer.)
A carefully thought out, valid will can save your loved ones a lot of heartache and prevent conflict. There are various will kits available but, again, it may be worth arranging a will through a lawyer so you can discuss what you want and make sure your wishes are clear and legal.
Save your nearest and dearest second-guessing by leaving instructions as to whether you want your remains to be buried or cremated. Does the location of interment or scattering matter to you? Also consider whether you would like a funeral and/or a wake. Some people find a simple gathering of friends is enough, for others ritual and a spiritual send off are important. Some people like to have the coffin present, others find this too confronting. The ceremony, interment/scattering and wake can be held on the same day or separately, and the people who attend each event may be different depending on the level of intimacy you would like.
We tend to think of death as being a long way off or happening to someone else. This may be, but things can change suddenly. It’s good to be prepared. Revisit your documents periodically or when your situation changes. Remember – careful consideration and planning in advance can provide direction for you and your loved ones at a time of intense emotions.
Okay, so here’s the rub
A few months ago I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Six years before, I was exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, meditated regularly and had no family history of breast cancer. I was therefore considered very low risk when I was diagnosed with an early stage of the disease. I went through the common story of surgery, chemo, radio, and ongoing hormone therapy. All of this took an enormous toll and sent me into deepest despair and suffering. In the years following the period of intense treatment I was determined the cancer would not come back and did all the right things. I drew from Western medicine and natural therapies while consistently nurturing my emotional and spiritual life.
‘They’ seem to say that if you make it to the five year mark without the cancer coming back you are doing well and if you get to ten years without a recurrence, and get another cancer it will not be related. So when I got the five year all clear I celebrated and thought the cancer was behind me. I really didn’t expect this diagnosis of a terminal illness only a few months after my five year scans detected no trace of cancer.
Making a decision
There’s so much information out there. What do I choose? I followed my own advice and did/revised all of the above (gold star!). At age 53, even with the most cutting edge medical treatment, my oncologist says I’ll be lucky to have more than two years. Do I choose to go with that? There are some schools of thought which say we choose when we will die. Wow. That’s a big one. Although I don’t go along with the traditional Catholic belief that I grew up with of a heaven of eternal bliss, I do believe in a life after death which is lighter than what we experience in this realm.
During meditation I’m approaching being able to bask in this Light and escape from the heaviness and harshness of the world. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but I find this world a hard place to be in and sometimes the idea of a Light-filled existence is an appealing alternative. On the other hand, life here is an opportunity. There is so much cool and fun stuff to do and experience. The trick is to find the joy. Don’t let it slip by. I am very fortunate that I have great professional and personal supports which help me reflect on these things. I draw deeply from my supports and consciously, deeply experience the things I love doing so that I can immerse myself in physical, sensory experiences that I enjoy.
We don’t know what’s around the corner and things can change quickly. Being given a time limit, even if I don’t accept it, increases my sense of urgency to fully experience.
I don’t know how long I’ve got to enjoy this world, but then again, neither do you!
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