Dying Matters: The Big Conversation

Every minute someone in the UK dies, but despite some really welcome progress many of us still don't talk to our loved ones about our end of life wishes.

Earlier this month, BBC Breakfast ran a special week of coverage on end of life issues and the benefits of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement.

While thinking about dying over a bowl of cornflakes may not be everyone's ideal start to the day, the coverage powerfully showed why it's so important for society to be more upfront when it comes to facing up to mortality.

BBC Breakfast's series shone a much needed light on an issue which too many of us still prefer to ignore. From looking at the increasing numbers of people quite literally being too poor to die due to rising funeral costs, through to how people can plan ahead for the end of life and the impact of bereavement, the programme not only provided a valuable public service but also made for powerful, inspiring and even uplifting viewing.

Every minute someone in the UK dies, but despite some really welcome progress many of us still don't talk to our loved ones about our end of life wishes. Surveys show we're also not putting practical plans in place, for example by writing a will, setting out how we would want to be cared for if we couldn't make decisions ourselves, putting financial plans in place or registering as an organ donor.

Writing this on my last day after almost five years of leading communications for the National Council for Palliative Care and its Dying Matters Coalition, I have had the privilege of learning from people who know all too well why we need to change the nation's approach to dying, and to talking about it.

The inspirational Mandy Paine hasn't let chronic obstructive pulmonary disease get in the way of campaigning for better end of life care, Tony and Dorothy Bonser have been transforming how communities talk about dying since their son Neil died, Ian Leech now leads on community development for a hospice following the death of his daughter, and Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds are showing why we need to change our approach to supporting people who have been bereaved.

These are just some of the people whose voices deserve to be heard loud and clear as we look to break down barriers about dying, death and bereavement - a task which couldn't be more important, with people living for longer with life limiting conditions and the numbers dying each year on the rise in line with demographic changes.

There is hope on the horizon, however.

Dying Matters Coalition members are amongst those leading the way in breaking down barriers to discussing dying and showing the benefits of having conversations which may be difficult but which couldn't be more important. During Dying Matters Awareness Week in May 2015 over 600 community events were held across England and Wales, with 10,000 volunteer hours contributed. The UK, including the work of the Dying Matters Coalition was also commended in the Economist Intelligence Unit's global Quality of Death Index 2015, for its work in engaging the community on end of life issues. And initiatives such as death cafes have enormous potential.

The challenge now is to make talking more openly about dying everyone's business and not just the preserve of those who have often learnt the hard way why it is so important.

This needs doctors and other health professionals to shake off their own discomfort about talking about dying and it needs all of us to become a bit braver and a bit bolder. We all need to recognise that discussing dying and planning ahead isn't admitting defeat or tempting fate, but could hold the key to living as well as possible until the very end, and to saving our loved ones from making heartbreaking decisions on our behalf.

It took working for an end of life charity for me to confront my own dislike and discomfort about discussing dying, and to realise that taking the initiative in talking more openly about planning ahead was a much healthier approach. However difficult conversations about dying may be, they are very unlikely to be as difficult as dealing with the implications of not talking about it.


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