The sun is shining, birds are singing, a slight sea breeze in the air – this day could not be more perfect! I feel good – muscles slightly achy from an intense workout, leaving me feeling strong and happy to have pushed myself. So, what better time than right now to talk about death!
No, I am serious: Let’s talk about death!
I am not afraid to bring up this subject with people around me. In fact, I do it on a regular basis, and have found it has usually one of two outcomes: either, my conversation partner finds a very quick excuse to leave (which has actually happened a few times) or, and this is the more common reaction, what starts at a very uncomfortable place leads to a wonderful conversation, where the mask comes off and we talk about our deepest fears, most heartbreaking moments in life and gain beautiful insights into each other’s souls.
Most of my life I was lucky enough to follow a relative predictable road: good childhood, school, university, first jobs, fell in love, got married, moved what felt like a hundred times, experienced different cultures and countries, made countless friends, had two kids and was swimming happily on the surface of life.
All of that came crashing down as I experienced not one, not two but four deaths in my immediate circle of close friends and family in just as many years. The amount of grief I experienced seemed to suffocate me and appeared to be never-ending. It catapulted me onto a long journey of healing, deep learning and awakened an insatiable curiosity about life.
Now, four years later it has led me to the most rewarding place of profound connection and internal peace, I have ever experienced. Being an End of Life Doula allows me to be present with people at one of the most crucial moments of their life: their death. I accompany families and their loved ones on this journey from various points onwards: sometimes I get a call at the last few days of a person’s life, sometimes I accompany them from the first day of hospice or sometimes our journey starts at any given point of their life with a simple sentence: Let’s talk about death.
Death is the only certainty in our lives. Nothing is promised to us, other than the inevitable end of our lives. We are not promised a tomorrow, riches, love, adventure or understanding, but we are definitely promised death. Every single one of us. So why are we not talking about it? How is it that we shy away from death, from age, from sickness and from grief? We cannot face the fact that we are all mortal and no matter what race, religion or financial background you have – this is the one thing that unifies us all.
So, to get back to the beginning: Let’s do it – let’s talk about death!
Have you thought about your death? No, don’t look away now. Stay with me. I promise, this read will be worth it!
Have you actually thought about your death? It could happen any day, it could happen in 30 years, or in 5 or today, for all you know. And if it does happen today, are you ready? Of course, there are the obvious things that need taking care of: your will, your End of Life Directive (what is that, you ask? No worries, I will get to that). But there are other things as well: have you told your loved ones how much they mean to you? Have you told them today? Don’t just assume they know. Say it! Say it with words and actions. Tell your friends how much they mean to you. Share yourself and your feelings openly, without regret, because today could actually be your last day here.
When faced with a terminal diagnosis and a limited amount of time left, people start to see the value in the everyday pleasures that surround them: the beauty of the sunset, the crisp smell of the morning breeze wafting through your open window, the feeling of grass under your feet, the intoxicating pleasure of chocolate melting in your mouth, the fleeting intensity of your daughter’s pudgy arms around your neck as you lift her in the air and spin her around, her laughter bursting out of her like rainbow colored bubbles of pure happiness. Those are all things I would miss, were I to die today.
This is the first lesson death has taught me: enjoy your life and love every second of it. Live intensely, knowing death could be just around the corner. Love deeply and share your heart openly.
The second lesson is: prepare! Make sure your affairs are in order.
This is actually the biggest gift you can give your loved ones. Make those hard decisions about the end of life now, while you are still healthy and in possession of all your faculties. After a death, shock and grief are often so intense that even breathing seems too daunting of an effort to undertake, let alone planning a funeral and making all the calls and arrangements necessary. Would he like white flowers or yellow ones? What music would he want? Open casket? Cremation? All those simple decisions become huge burdens for anyone experiencing the loss of a loved one. There is guilt and the pressure not to disappoint the deceased, making sure everything is just perfect as a final sign of love and farewell. But if you provide your loved ones with a clear directive regarding funeral wishes, contact numbers of friends and family to be notified, accessible information for bank accounts, insurance policies, lease agreements etc, you take a huge burden from their shoulders. You can be as detailed as you like, covering burial wishes, flowers and music choices. Do you want a small ceremony or a big celebration of your life? A religious ceremony? How do you envision this last farewell to go? You can go as far as writing your own obituary (seriously! If you have never done that: give it a try. Grab a bottle of wine, curl up on the couch with a box of tissues and give it a go. It is one of the most eye-opening experiences ever; very emotional but also deeply healing and it will leave you with a renewed zest for life)
And of course: let’s not forget about your will. Taking care of your estate is not just for the rich. In many countries the government will actually take charge of your estate in the absence of a legal will, locking up bank accounts and funds for a long time, while the legality of the inheritance is established. This can cause a huge unnecessary strain on your loved ones, especially if children are left behind, who’s guardianship needs to be established.
So, where do you start? First, find an executor of your will (that is the person taking care of your final wishes after your death). It should be someone you trust and whom you get along with, maybe a close friend or relative. Then take inventory of everything you own: finances (bank accounts, funds, stocks and retirement accounts), objects of financial or sentimental value (cars, jewelry, property etc) and decide who you want to leave these things to. You have children? Have you decided whom to entrust your children to? Have you spoken to that person about your wishes? What about your dog, or your cat? Who will take care of them? Compile a list of your digital accounts, such as social media, online banking and computer passwords and be specific about what you want to happen to those accounts after your death.
And your End of Life directive (remember, we spoke about that earlier). This advance directive takes care of medical decisions while you are still alive but unable to make these decisions for yourself. You need to decide who will have medical power of attorney in case you cannot make these decisions anymore (in case of coma or advanced illness, for example) and the second part is a “Living Will”, where you decide on what kind of medical treatments you would like at the end of life (do you want pain medication if needed, do you want to receive CPR if necessary, are you ok with being attached to a ventilator?). There are many different questions to consider and there is no right or wrong answer – it all depends on what YOU want.
Death is a heavy subject, I get it. But it is never too late to start thinking and planning ahead. So please: if you have not done it yet, do it now! Put it on top of your to do list. You will feel so much better afterwards! And next time you hang out with your friends, give this one a try: Let’s talk about death!
*Since originally writing this article in 2020, Alexandra has published a beautiful podcast series called 'Learning to say goodbye' it is an eye opening and beautiful look at this often challenging time in peoples lives. Find the Podcast here.