The importance of talking openly and honestly about death


I’m attending a friend’s funeral tomorrow, and, as well as reflecting on his life and the people he leaves behind, I couldn’t help but make the connection with the Dying Matters Staffordshire discussion that we’ve started on talking openly and honestly about death.

Nigel served a full career in the RAF and died of a degenerative lung disease in his mid 60s. Although it is desperately sad that he and his wife didn’t get a long retirement together, it strikes me that his early death was probably more planned around his wishes than if he had survived into old age.

This is, in essence, the challenge for us. The UK has the world’s leading palliative care and hospice movement, and we have absolutely got it right for those who die early. We now must extend this learning – the honesty and the compassion – across the population.

Those of us who are not yet in old age are frankly kidding ourselves if we think that our elderly loved ones don’t want to talk about death.  My own mother, now in her late 80s, has made her wishes to remain in her home very clear, and, as a result, we have put in place the measures to keep her there for as long as practical.

This openness must also extend to the health and care sector. Too many nursing home residents die in hospital, surrounded by strangers; the best way of making sure that they die with family and friends in peace is to have the conversations that Nigel had with his wife and his doctors in the weeks before his death. They are not easy conversations, but it makes the grieving process easier.

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