Christi R. Suzanne is a web and communications professional in health care and higher education. She writes in her spare time and is currently working on a novel where dying well is one of its themes. Follow her on Twitter: @christirsuzanne.
I’ve been obsessed with four things my entire life: writing, reading, traveling, and dying. The first “book” I ever wrote was called The Tombstone. I hadn’t come up with my pen name yet. I was in fourth grade and wrote it on one of my mother’s notepads. I even illustrated it. The story is about a mother and daughter. One day, when the child is older and living in America the mother moves into a cave in an unnamed country. Pretty soon the reader realizes that the mother is sick, deathly ill and that she isn’t going to live much longer. In the end, her daughter picks exactly three flowers and places them on top of her mother. She watches her die peacefully.
Even then, I imagined a whole story based around a way to control how you die and choosing who to have next to your deathbed. Most of all, I hoped death would be a peaceful experience.
I had only experienced the death of a few family guinea pigs: Black Magic and Cinnamon, and a couple of hamsters: Peanut and Candy. Names were not my strong suit. The deaths of my pets affected me profoundly; I was a sensitive child, but death isn’t something people talk much about. Yet it’s something that’s on everyone’s mind in some form or another. For thirty-some years, I’ve sat with it and wondered how to talk about it. The conversations are different for each individual and the way people relate to it are based on life experiences, circumstances and any number of other factors. I first learned about the Death with Dignity movement a few years after I moved to Oregon over eleven years ago. I was curious about it and how it could help people talk about death and dying.
I began having conversations with some of my family and friends, between the ages of 35 and 67, about their relationship to death and how they are able, or unable, to talk about it.
My first question was a two-part question. I asked if they thought about death and when they did what came to mind right away. Everyone said they had thought about it at least some, but had very different answers. Sometimes fear is involved, but oftentimes not. My mom immediately said, “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m not ready to die.”
When I asked the same question to a younger friend who works in end-of-life care coordinating she had a different reaction. Megan said, “Panic and fear come to mind immediately when I think of death. I am afraid of dying prematurely.”
Sometimes it triggers a memory or an action. My fiancé, Andy, said, “The song my dad wants me to play at his funeral keeps coming up on my iTunes. I keep dreading when I will have to have that song ready. I think a lot about existential philosophy and how death is the absence of meaning; therefore, the pressure is on to use my life to create meaning.”
The most common reaction was it was the ultimate unknown and we won’t know what happens in death until we get there. Another friend said he thought about death quite a lot. That it’s the inevitable and eventual end for every living thing. Stephen said, “People don’t like to think about it or talk about it. People act like it’s the worst thing that could ever happen. It’s a weird way to think about it when it is going to happen to everyone. Why do we look at it that way?”
My friend, Sarah, works in palliative care and is exposed to death and dying on a regular basis. Her experience has shaped her view on how she relates to death. “Life is a cycle. We all end up in the same place. Thinking about death helps me be more focused on how I want to live my life. I think I make better decisions and I am more grateful for each day,” Sarah said.
The next question I asked the same group was what they think has shaped their view of death and dying. My mom didn’t hesitate to say, “My faith has shaped my view of death. I haven’t been around death much, but it hasn’t been scary.” While my friend Stephen was quick to point out genetics as the culprit. He said, “It’s genetic. My family is morbid. They almost delight in telling you about their health problems. When my aunt came to visit she sat around and read the obituaries as entertainment.”
In terms of advanced directives and living wills most of my friends and family had thought about it, but hadn’t yet come up with a plan for them. Sarah took a class that required her to complete her own advanced directive. She said, “It forces you to think about life in a different way. In the end it isn’t the piece of paper that is the most important part. It’s about talking about it and what quality of life means to you.”
One theme that kept popping up throughout my interviews was that we need to talk about death and dying. Megan said, “It’s cultural to deny it, but I want to be clear about planning ahead. That my family understands what I want so they don’t have to make hard decisions.”
My next question was: how do you talk about death and dying with your friends and family? Andy said, “I don’t like talking about death as something that is entirely unnatural. Certain types of death are unnatural, but I don’t want to avoid talking about it. I’d like our culture to be more conscious of death as a natural element of life.”
Sarah finds other ways to talk about death. She said, “Death comes up in different contexts. Sometimes it’s because you’re talking about someone who has passed. Or maybe it’s something you’ve seen on the news. You can turn the conversation around to explaining what you want or don’t want when you die by saying, ‘I like that idea’ or ‘I don’t want to die like that’.”
Starting the conversation with your family and friends is the first step. It definitely opened my eyes to see how different people relate to death and dying. These thoughts and feelings will evolve over time so it is important to keep talking. The part that unnerves me at times is what leads up to my death, whether it’s disease or a debilitating accident. Not knowing how or when we will die is difficult. Knowing we can handle the decisions around our deaths because we’ve talked about it helps. I echo what my friends and family say: start talking.
Originally published at www.deathwithdignity.org on July 22, 2014.