It’s something we don’t want to think about, let alone talk about. In our society, we view death as something which happens out of sight, in hospitals and hospices, at the end of a long, fulfilled life.
Death is depressing, talking about it is morbid.
But if we knew how to talk to the bereaved, or how to open up to friends when we feel scared of dying, or how to share memories of lost loved ones, could we change the way we feel about death and dying? Could a conversation about death be less morbid and more life-affirming?
According to a 2018 Dying Matters Coalition study, 72 per cent of us had been bereaved in the previous five years, but 47 per cent were uncomfortable talking to the recently bereaved. The bereaved were left experiencing negative reactions to their grief, from people avoiding them to the complete loss of friendships.
In the last two years, many of us have had to confront death earlier than we might have expected. COVID-19 resulted in over 140,000 deaths in the UK, and a University of Bristol survey found that those bereaved have been experiencing higher levels of negative reactions (eg avoidance).
The stilted, unsatisfactory conversations we have about death are recognised by Louise Harman.
After her dad died, she became determined to change the way we react to death and founded social enterprise, Louise On Death, to help others navigate grief and support the grieving in a more positive, productive way.
She says: ‘People sent me ‘happy birthday’ messages days after Dad’s funeral, but of course it was not happy and it would have been better if they’d recognised and acknowledged that.
‘My GP suggested antidepressants, but I wasn’t depressed, I was grieving. I had no idea grief was so painful because death is an off-limits topic until it’s too late and you’re suddenly grieving without a guidebook.
‘Everyone expects you to recover quickly and get back to how you were before your loss, but as anyone who has lost someone knows, you can never go back. You can only go forwards.’
Louise hopes to switch the focus from recovery to curiosity, giving people a platform to explore death, dying, grieving, and celebrating lost loved ones.
Grief was one of the hardest experiences of her life, so she wants to make it better for those yet to experience it.
She says: ‘If we have a safe space to unashamedly and creatively explore how we feel about death, grieving might be a less lonely and painful experience.’
But change is happening. New podcast How Is Today? helps friends of grievers become better grief allies.
Marie Curie, the charity supporting people through terminal illness, is helping us become more comfortable talking about death and bereavement, with stories and podcasts on their blog curated to make the topic less scary.
And available at shop.mariecurie.org.uk are ‘conversation cards’, designed to help make difficult conversations easy. Posing questions such as: ‘Which of your body parts, if any, would you donate to science?’ and ‘What’s the one place you’d like to visit before you die?’ the 52-card pack gently ignites the kind of conversations we might regret not having.
Louise says: ‘We shouldn’t have to wait until we are dying, or bereaved, to talk about death. My hope is that we can help people fear death less, by talking about it more.’
Edited by Kim Willis
● If you’re curious about death or you’ve lost someone, no matter how long ago, visit louiseondeath.com for support.
Ways to talk about death...
● If someone they love has died… be guided by the person who is grieving. Give them space to reminisce or talk about something else if they’d prefer. What’s most important is not to avoid someone who is grieving.
● If someone you love has died… Don’t put expectations on yourself. It’s OK to feel sad for as long or as often as you need. Be open with friends about what you want and need to talk about and if you don’t feel ready to talk, that’s fine too.
● If you are curious about death and dying… you are not alone in your curiosity but not everyone is comfortable talking about death. Be open and honest with those you trust.