There are a lot of articles out there telling you how to talk to your family about death as if it’s a complicated thing to do that requires special care and attention. It doesn’t.
I wonder about the personal lives of the people who write advice about setting up a particular time and place to discuss death. Are their families so fundamentally different than mine? The thought of finding myself surrounded by my immediate family, all ready to discuss some sort of Important Topic on me fills me with dread and escape fantasies. Who ever hears the words “we need to talk” and doesn’t want to run away and never return?
Once I took my mom to Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery to see the parrots and giant turtles and we snuck into a crypt tour. What better place to discuss what we want done with our earthly remains than the home of someone else’s? How afraid of being buried alive is your mom? When the next plague hits, would she rather you stick around or escape while you can?
The grand cemeteries of the Victorian era are turning to events to raise operating funds, so check your local event listings if you’re not as good at sneaking into things as my mom and I are.
But it doesn’t require anything that special. For a culture that supposedly doesn’t want to talk about death, we talk about death a heck of a lot. Have you looked at the news? Full of stories about death and dying and illness…all potential segues into a conversation about your death or their death or death in general.
It doesn’t have to be the news. Museums are full of opportunities to discuss the types of medical care you very much don’t want while asking leading questions to dig up some family medical history. My mom and I are avid readers and there are so many memoirs and novels where the narrative centers on the heath care system. If your family is religious, the opportunities are endless. The more you think about dying, the easier it is to work it into conversation and the more you talk about it the less of a big deal it is.
While I love making deeply inappropriate jokes about death (with my deeply inappropriate family), dark humor about how they’re free to dump my body in the woods to be eaten by wolves for all I care so long as they don’t let me suffer beforehand (which is not actually a joke or hyperbole), I’ve also modeled the behavior I’d like to encourage. Namely, by putting my wishes in writing.
Have my parents created a living will? I have no idea. They do know that I have named medical and financial power of attorneys. They know this because I carefully discussed it with the lucky chosen, created documents that are legally binding in the state my parents live in and the province in which I now reside, and got my parents to sign them. Then I gave everyone hard copy originals and digital copies. Which we discussed before and after and I enjoy occasionally tweeting about. Twitter may not be legally binding, but we all know that what we tweet is eternal. No one I’ve spent more than 20 minutes with can pretend to be surprised by the documents when the time comes.
Talking about dying doesn’t have to really be talking about dying. The most important thing is understanding what matters to the people you might end up making medical decisions for.
My personal beliefs and desires are besides the point when it comes to deciding what kind of care my mom should get. To do that I need to understand her values. So while some of the conversation about aging involves me trying to convince her to buy a house with a garden apartment in Windsor Terrace so we can have separate apartments and I can still have space to throw a decent dinner party, the real goal is get to know my mom as a real person. Our parents may always be our parents, no matter how old we are, but they also exist far beyond their roles as our parents as full, complicated people.
Talking about death and dying really just means getting to know the people you think you know best, but might not know at all. Which, surely you don’t need a special occasion or special training to do.
Featured image: New York, New York, USA – Jan 06 1997: View of graves and sculptures in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn. Shutterstock.