By Michael Hebb
From where I sit, the writing is on the wall. It is time to face the inevitable, and we need a grassroots movement–we need to face our mortality as a village, not as isolated individuals. Funerals, law offices, and hospitals shouldn’t be the only places we confront the passing of loved ones. The proper depth of this conversation can’t happen when you feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and sad. It happens when you feel comfortable and are not staring down a crisis.
Given the right framing, a “difficult” conversation does not need to be difficult. It can be liberating. It can even be transformative.
It can bring us closer together, put us in touch with our humanity, and remind us what really matters. It can leave us stronger and wiser and bolder than we were before. It can prepare us to have another conversation, when crisis or a terminal diagnosis does arise, that we were not ready to have before.
The studies are clear: open conversation with your family, doctors, and caregivers about your end-of-life wishes result in better care, less suffering, and a longer life. Conversations about death have even proved to make us funnier and more willing to laugh.
If you don’t talk about what you want at the end, then you can be sure that you won’t get what you want. Picture what you want your final days to be like: Who is around you? Are you in a hospital? Will there be a funeral, and if so, what music is playing and who is speaking? What happens to your body? How do you want to be remembered? Telling your wishes to your friends and family will give them more than the ability to honor you; it will give them the peace of mind to properly grieve you without the weight of doubt and guilt. My friend Lucy Kalanithi, the widow who finished and published her husband’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, recently told me she viewed her conversations with Paul about his impending death as a second wedding vow–a sacred exchange, a vision, and an oath to follow and honor.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross once said, “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you will live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know you must do.” To talk about our own mortality and the mortality of our loved ones is to talk about life. Death is the greatest mirror. As my fellow northwestern Michael Meade so poignantly states, “The role of a fully realized human being is to arrive at the door of death having become oneself.”
If we take ownership over our lives and eventual death, we can allow others to be powerfully present to our passing and not let it be lost in the chaos of indecision. If doctors and nurses had clear direction from each of us–advance-care directives, clear power of attorney, healthcare proxy–and if our families knew our wishes for the type of care we want at our life’s end, if they knew what we want to happen to our body and how we want to be celebrated, the emotional and financial burden would significantly reduce.
By transforming the planning process into an opportunity, a joyful and significant activity that allows us to honor ourselves and our loved ones, we can change the way we die–and the way we live. Death of a close family member or preparing for own inevitable end can be one of the more daunting experiences we face. This book sets out to make the preparation and planning easier, even beautiful, whether it is an unexpected death or a slow waltz to the finish line.
Please don’t mistake my optimism for delusion, I know how hard the terrain is, I know it is not a well-lit path, and yet I believe that every person has the ability to step into these canyons. It is just about how and when.”
Adapted from Let’s Talk About Death (over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation by Michael Hebb (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2018).
The Long Before the End Book Group
An Evening Event with Devorah Medwin and Caren Martineau
The Book Group will discuss Hebb’s book, Let’s Talk About Death (over Dinner)
Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00 pm
To learn more and register, click here.