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The Conversation No One Wants to Have

13/05/2016 11:33 | Updated 13 May 2016

There are some things in life that are inevitable, but of all of life's certainties, death is perhaps the most certain of all and the thing that we find the most difficult to discuss.

As a population death is one of our least favourite of topics - but it cannot be silenced. It will touch us all, and at some stage, it will happen to us all. But although inevitable, death and dying don't need to be scary or painful. Symptoms can be managed and information and conversations can and do provide comfort.

There is a lot that we can learn from children, whose pragmatism around death can be disarmingly surprising and distinctly refreshing - without the years of cumulated fears and existential realisations, children often meet bereavement in a very different way to adults and speak very openly about it. They do cry and get cross, but they still laugh. The mourn, but they don't eschew joy. Often, they talk about death, dying and bereavement in a much more open way than adults asking questions like 'When did your brother die' whilst bouncing up and down on a space hopper. This should be food for thought for us, the grown-ups, whose natural position is frequently to shroud the topic in mystery and euphemism.

We can 'unlearn' our fears around the subject of death, and we can learn to approach the topic thoughtfully within the context of hope and grace. This week is Dying Matters Awareness Week, and all over the country people will be thinking and talking about how to have 'The Big Conversation' and get people talking and thinking about death, dying and bereavement and to making plans for their lives and the end of their lives.

Although it is big in nature, the Big Conversation doesn't have to be an epic, 'Lord of the Rings' style marathon where you haul up for eight hours to talk. If you can set aside protected time to talk that's brilliant, but sometimes circumstances mean that the conversation will come up when you're not expecting it - over the dinner table, at bedtime, while you're on the phone. If this happens, let it be - don't shut down the conversation of shy away from it because you don't feel it's the right time and don't feel irreverent if you include a joke or two.

The Big Conversation doesn't only have to happen once either; it could be a series of little big conversations, returned to as much as is necessary. This helps death, dying and bereavement become less of a taboo, and leaves space for the changing hearts and minds.

Death as a shapeless 'thing' which we know will happen one day is very different to death which is real and imminent, when we see a person we love fading or even know ourselves that time is dwindling. People change their minds about how and where they want to die - sometimes they will change their minds numerous times throughout their journey. I have known people who see hospices as alien and scary before they've interacted with them, but who at a later stage in their journey, see them as a safe and protective space. Things change; that's fine. It's not knowing what people want or not being able to articulate it that's the problem.

The Big Conversation doesn't only need to happen when the death of a loved one or family member is looming, either. Just as we should fix the roof while the sun shines, we should talk about death when we are well. Life is a wonderfully unpredictable thing - we are handed cards we don't expect and we are taken on journeys we never could have imagined. If anything unexpected were to happen to a person you love, there would then be the lonely process of decision making about their death if their wishes weren't made clear. Knowing what someone wanted means they can be empowered both in life and in death, and removes an additional stress from the grieving process for relatives.

We have to learn to open up about the only true inevitability in life. Dying Matters Awareness Week is a reminder that opening up doesn't have to be painful and doesn't have to happen at the worst of times - lets recognise that death is part of life and stop running from it.

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