An uncomfortable truth
According to a survey by YouGov on behalf of Co-op Funeralcare, 18 million of us are uncomfortable talking about death, 5 million are uncomfortable talking about our own death and 13 million people are uncomfortable but are willing to talk about it.
Many people are uncomfortable
Regardless of how the data was extrapolated, that’s a lot of people who are uncomfortable with talking about death. It’s no wonder then that the bereaved often come across people that don’t know what to say to them. In fact, the survey reports that one-seventh of the bereaved said that nobody knew what to say to them. I have some sympathy with those who become mute, some things are so awful it is hard to know what words could possibly help.
I have to confess that the uncomfortableness over talking about death is a mystery to me. I am hugely pragmatic and it’s not as if we don’t experience death around us every day. We see news of people dying every day so I find it really hard to understand why some people find it difficult to talk about. Yes, I can appreciate that it is scary to think about the fragility of life. There’s nothing like someone of your own age, or younger, dying or a health scare to suddenly prick at your consciousness and make you aware of your own mortality.
Make a will, live your life
I wrote my first will in my 30s after 9/11. It wasn’t just a question of what I wanted when I died, it was about what I emphatically didn’t want that was important to me. How can our loved ones know what we want if we don’t tell anybody? I never discussed what my mother’s wishes were with her and I regret that. Talking to my 86 year old father hasn’t been easy for him but he finally understood that, unless he told me what he wanted, I would have to make all of the decisions.
I fully expect that, if I reach my 80s, I’ll be terrified of dying. It’s not like I go around thinking I might die today, but then I’ll watch the news and think that none of the people who died in tragic circumstances were expecting to die, and that none of us know when it will happen to us or our loved ones. OK, so all this sounds morbid. It doesn’t make me feel gloomy to acknowledge these feelings, it makes me feel quite the opposite. It makes me feel grateful that I can still enjoy the people and things in life I love and have my health. It makes me feel like I should make the best of what I’ve got.
Empathy is key
I’m not a new age person (no offence if you are), I’m just accepting that I will die; that’s easier than accepting that my loved ones too will die and that I will face bereavement possibly time and time again. But really, there’s not much to be uncomfortable with. Yes, I understand people who don’t know what to say to the bereaved, but it’s not that complicated – something terrible has happened, imagine that was you. All you need to say is something simple like ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your mum’ or even ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t know what to say’. The bereaved can feel very lonely and isolated, it’s important that we don’t exacerbate that because of our own awkwardness.
It’s distress that I find the most difficult to deal with – seeing others in pain and feeling helpless. “How comfortable are you with seeing other people suffer?” Is this perhaps how people interpret the question about talking about death? Is it the emotion that this question evokes that scares us? This I understand.
Unfortunately, it’s a harsh reality that most of us will experience grief; for the onlooker it’s worth remembering that most people adapt and learn to enjoy life again. As a society, it seems we are most comfortable with happiness.