We need to talk about death and dying, but it can be really hard to start the conversation. In this blog post Bereavement Volunteer Jane Hamerton gives some tips on how to have those difficult conversations, or cope when there wasn’t a chance to do so.
I came to Cruse after someone I knew died a very unhappy death in hospital, which was upsetting for everyone. I googled ‘a good death’, and this started me on a journey which has lead to being a volunteer for Cruse for four years. I work individually with bereaved people in Suffolk, and have also been taking shifts on the Cruse national helpline for a year.
Everyone’s grief is unique, but after supporting many clients I hear many similar stories about the issues which can make a situation that much more difficult:
- Someone did not make a will – sudden deaths can cause many problems including potential homelessness, for example where a house was promised to someone but there was nothing in writing.
- A few clients mention they did not know what kind of funeral a loved one wanted – was it a burial or cremation? What songs/hymns did they want?
- I have heard about arguments about which family member has the ashes and what to do with them.
- Sometimes there are painful discussions about who gets personal possessions.
- There is often lots of guilt around an unhappy stay in hospital and many questions about what could have been done differently.
“If only …. What if ….. I keep getting flashbacks …. I didn’t tell them I loved them …. I wished my parent had been at home at the end ….. I wish it could have been better … “
All these difficult situations make it much harder for people to deal with their grief and it takes longer to process. Sometimes the grief work can’t even start until the situation is resolved. Bereaved people often also mention physical symptoms – unexplained chest pains, headaches, not being able to sleep, difficulty going back to work and even holding down a job, lots of things they have never told anyone.
I was so struck by how difficult it is for people to have these challenging conversations that I decided to train to become an end of life doula. And actually when you do start talking, I find people very willing to talk about it and share their stories.
We need to talk about death and dying yet we are scared of starting the conversation. We prepare for birthdays and weddings but not the inevitable fact of death – it seems to be the ‘elephant in the room’!
Starting difficult conversations
How do you start the conversation, when it can seem so daunting? I ask someone how do you eat an elephant? In small bites! Starting is the main task. It might be that you see a film, or someone famous dies – keep an eye out for anything which could be an opening. You don’t have start by sitting down formally with a pen and paper – ask a question while on a walk or sitting beside someone in a car. It can be easier to start when you’re not face to face.
It’s not just one conversation. It has taken me and my children five years to complete decisions about burials versus cremations, because they could not decide. But once you have started talking, each time it will get easier.
What to discuss
Making a will
Having a will is very important as dying without one makes life very complicated for the family. If you have a property, a partner and children this is even more important. Find out why.
Passwords and documents
If you were to suddenly have an accident does someone you trust have your passwords and know where important documents are kept? Find out about your digital legacy.
Power of attorney
Who can speak on your behalf if you can’t? One million people in the UK will be living with dementia by 2025. You might want to consider making a Lasting Power of Attorney – there are two kinds, one is for finance and the other for health and welfare.
Treatments and healthcare
Are there any treatments you do or don’t want if at some point you can't communicate? An advanced decision (or living will) is helpful as you can then put it out of your mind and get on with the business of living.
The Advance Statement or Statement of Wishes and Preferences enables you to write down anything which is important to you and can cover any aspect of your future health or social care. It takes pressure off family and friends to make decisions at a time of crisis.
Make use of resources
If you're worried about discussing these things in person, you could write a letter or email and use this as a starting point. You don’t have to send it but it may help you think of what you might say to someone. Try using this letter template .
A good website to help you talk about it and record your wishes is Compassion in Dying.
How to cope if you didn't speak to your loved one
Despite our best intentions sometimes there was no chance to talk to someone before they died. Regrets, grief and anger following a death are very common. The best thing to do if you are struggling is to try and take care of yourself.
- Talk to us on CruseChat or call the Cruse helpline – talking to a trained person can really help make sense of how you are feeling. No-one can ‘fix it’ but Cruse understands.
- The Samaritans are open 24/7 it’s confidential and a safe space to share difficult feelings
- Move your body – do anything, getting out of bed, going for a walk, being in nature, Research shows if we don’t move we will feel worse.
- Reach out to a friend who ‘gets it’ – who will listen and not judge.
- Try and sleep, eat and drink as healthily as you can and take ‘baby steps’ with yourself. Talk to yourself as you would a best friend. One day at a time.
- Listen to a podcast or audio book or maybe watch a favourite film or listen to music that moves you. Maybe spending time on a hobby or journaling might just shift something within you?
- Remember grief affects you physically and emotionally. Tears release cortisol, they are a normal reaction to grief.
- If you need advice over legal issues or practical conflicts after someone dies, the National Bereavement Service offers free advice and signposts to legal services.