Comment: 'We should talk about death more – and not just in times like these'

Susana Rowles

ON Thursday the Health Minister urged islanders to talk to loved ones about deathbed wishes, I think we should talk about death more, not just in times like this.

A few months ago, I sat down with my father-in-law to go through his Lasting Power of Attorney. The duty fell on me because I am known as ‘the direct one’; it’s a running family joke. Anyway, the reality is that neither my husband nor his father wanted to discuss it with one another.

Leaving aside the fact that the process is extremely complicated, no one will deny that it’s an odd conversation to have. ‘Hi, family member, we need to talk about what we do if you can’t make decisions for yourself?’ Or ‘Have you decided who’s having all your money?’

I approached the subject like I do spiders in the bath, you have to go straight in, no skirting around.

It was a good thing we did this too, because it transpires that dad doesn’t want a funeral, full stop. He just wants a massive party. He also wants his body to go to medical research. We had no idea!

Dad and I grew confident in our conversation, and through me he found a way of expressing his wishes. We then called the rest of the family in, to witness what we had agreed.

While this worked well with my father-in-law, when I tried having a similar conversation with my own father things didn’t quite go to plan.

We ended up parking the subject before things got heated, but I had to follow up the next day for fear that I didn’t really know what his actual wishes were. We got there in the end, sort of. But that was just between me and him, no one else knows what was said. He doesn’t think it is necessary to do anything official. I am not sure how useful my knowledge will be when the time comes.

Recently, a family relative died without leaving a Will and the level of complication this has caused could not have been intended.

Families are not straightforward and making your wishes known to them should be taken seriously.

I don’t know why we don’t have an annual day for talking about these things, review what the plan is, see if the wishes are still the same, add or remove people from the Will and then move on for another year.

Why do we leave it so late? Why do we make it so awkward?

The older you are, of course, the harder it is to bring it up without the sense of impending demise or without the rest of the family thinking you are ill or hiding something. It also gets worse for the family to bring it up without it sounding like you’ve been thinking about it.

Death and taxes are really the only two certainties in life, so maybe we can merge the two! I am only half joking here, but we could make tax return day, the ‘Let’s talk about death day’ – swallow two large frogs in one go.

Or get the government to send us a form to fill out every year.

What I want is for more people to talk about death. Not how it happens, or when it happens, but the fact that one day we will all eventually die.

Culturally we have gradually edged away from death. Families used to take care of the dead, now undertakers do. We used to have open caskets, but in a lot of cultures that is now considered too macabre and thus avoided.

Children have been entirely removed from the process. We spare them, because we want to shield them from grief, but in doing so, we are also denying them the opportunity to understand death and contextualise the process.

The dangers of not talking about death and not discussing it openly may consign the subject even further to taboo. And with that we run the risk of inadvertently not doing right by our loved ones.

Dad would be turning in his grave if we got those black horses and the mahogany casket complete with full-on ceremonial procession. I admire his decision to donate his body to research.

In the current climate we may not have the time and it might seem too difficult a conversation to have, but it is important to make that Will, to register that Power of Attorney and to tell your direct family, without dramas or awkwardness, what kind of ceremony you would like to have.

Ask the questions. Speak about it with your loved ones. Make it normal, a normal conversation to have.

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