Conversations around death and dying

Senior couple embraces while sitting on a pier.
Conversations around death and dying

There are plenty of tough talks you could have with your loved ones over the course of your life, from painful ones through to the downright embarrassing. But tough conversations about death and dying? Those are often the ones we often avoid most.

Dodging these discussions does us a great disservice, though. If final wishes aren’t communicated in time, or at all, it can lead to family arguments and hasty decisions. Even worse, it can leave people with little time to focus on experiencing precious calm moments in their final days.

This was why Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller – an educator, researcher, author, and speaker wrote a book called Talking About Death Won't Kill You; The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations.

Drawing from her own experience of being a mother of two young kids and facing a cancer diagnosis, Kathy crafted a practical exploration of why we shy away from discussing death, as well as how we can all make it more of a part of our lives.

We asked Kathy about the key reasons why we don’t like to talk about death – and how to broach the subject with family and friends for the benefit of everyone involved.

We're all going to die – so why is it so hard to talk about it?

The average life expectancy for Canadians is 82 years old – and many of us hope to live to 88, according to a recent poll from North Cover. That’s a lot of time to dodge discussions about death.

Our same poll found that 55% of Canadians believe “we need to talk more about death and dying in Canada” – but only 61% of us feel comfortable doing so.

“I think we avoid these conversations in part because we don't know enough about death anymore,” Kathy says, pointing to how the medicalization of death has created a limit to our knowledge of the process – and that cultivates a fear of the unknown.

“In my book, I talk about how we used to die in our homes,” she says, adding that this practice is still commonplace in cultures around the globe. “I think in Western society, we've turned [death] over to our health care providers. And because we have had such extensive medical advancements – which are lovely, and I have personally benefitted from them – as a result, we see death as being the enemy. We see it as being almost a failure as opposed to acknowledging that it happens to all of us.”

Talking about death should be a part of life

One could argue that to be contrarian is to be human, and there’s possibly no better example of this than when it comes to talking about death. As Kathy points out, we avoid it because dying seems like a lack of control in our lives, when really, we could harness and activate so many of our final wishes just by simply chatting about it in safe and comfortable environment.

As one Psychology Today article suggests, “Conversations have the power to change the brain by boosting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate body systems and nerve pathways, changing our body’s chemistry, not just for a moment, but perhaps for a lifetime.” While discussions about death may be emotional and unearth some unexpected reactions, there’s a certain comfort that’s undeniable when these conversations come from a place of compassion and care for our loved ones.

For Kathy, even the application of euphemisms like “passed away” hamper our ability to have truly productive discussions about death (that’s part of the reason why she gave her book such a straight-forward title that encourages open dialogue). “It's clear communication, and it recognizes that we need to do some work to normalize that,” she notes, adding that “socializing the discussion so that we're less concerned about the morbidity, but rather see it in terms of how it can improve our lot living here and now until we die” is important if we want to get over our death-phobic tendencies.

How to talk to someone you love about death and dying

While there are resources available to help us navigate conversations about death and dying, it’s crucial to accept that there’s no ‘right’ way to have the discussion.

“Every family system, or any social network, is slightly different,” Kathy says. “[But] there are a couple of different strategies one can consider so that we're not saying, ‘Okay, on Thursday at three, we're going to talk about death.’”

For example, one avenue taps into what is also another trademark human behaviour: blaming it on something you saw. Kathy highlights how mentioning a news article you’ve read about death can be a springboard to speaking about it with your family and friends in a way that doesn’t make it feel like it’s coming out of nowhere.

“COVID has been a huge catalyst,” she says about starting such conversations, adding that movies, music, and visual art are also potential prompts to get the discussion going. “We’ve heard so many stories about people who've had to make difficult choices in really tight timelines about where they were going to be when they died, and how things were going to roll out.”

Here, Kathy acknowledges that while there’s no correct time to talk about death, having discussions during these fraught occasions makes managing them much more complicated. “At the moment when you have to be making decisions in vulnerable situations, there's often time factors, [and] people don't have the chance to really begin to unpack the things that matter to them.”

How to talk to kids about death

While conversations around death and dying (and finances) are important to have with the other adults in your life, you should also think about the little ones you know. Both kinds of conversations can be challenging, but ultimately, they’re often beneficial.

Using soft language and euphemisms is tempting, but being more matter-of-fact can actually be more impactful, experts say. Using language like “someone died,” is more helpful and less confusing to little ones than saying “passed” or “resting”. So, even if it may seem a little blunt and uncomfortable to us as adults, kids will usually grasp death better if we’re more direct.

The information provided should always be age appropriate. It takes until about ages five to seven for children to understand that death is permanent. You might have to repeat information and answer questions several times, especially as kids grow older and start to understand more in time. They may also have new questions or re-experience grief differently as they develop. Teenagers, meanwhile, will understand death the same way as adults, but might have viewpoints that differ from their family, so be prepared to have open discussions.

Remember that kids of all ages are sensitive to changes in their environment and routine, and the feelings of others around them. Having regular and straightforward conversations is often the most healthy approach for everyone.

Make finances part of the talk

Ultimately, talking about death and dying may be uncomfortable but it can do a lot of good emotionally and financially. Talking to your loved ones about your final wishes and how to pay for them can take some financial pressure off when the time comes. With North Cover Final Expenses Insurance, for example, you can designate up to five beneficiaries to receive your claims payout. Letting those folks know about your policy in advance can help take away some stress when it comes to arranging your funeral or covering final expenses.

Final expenses insurance can help those you love when they need it the most