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Talking about dying matters in Dying Matters week

1st May 2024
As some of you who are regular supporters may know, both my parents died last year in Sobell House. It was a very sad and difficult year for me and my family, and it also meant that death and dying were at the forefront of conversation, both at work and in my personal life. The team have asked me to reflect a little bit on why talking about dying matters and what I have learnt going through such a tough time.

My dad was a very organised man who loved to catalogue things. Once he knew he had a terminal illness (though a long time before he actually died), he created two files – ‘Geoffrey Foster – a Life’ and ‘Geoffrey Foster – a Death.’ As well as writing up his life (in lists!), he also wrote his philosophy on life and letters to all of us to be read on his death. The death file contained all of his important information, as well as his wishes. Although it was hard to be told about it and for him to share it with us, he made sure my siblings and I knew where the file was and what his wishes were.

Being able to talk about his death, as well as knowing his preferred place of death, made a very difficult time easier when that time did inevitably come. Not talking about death does not mean it will not happen, and knowing what your person’s wishes are when they are dying is actually very comforting, especially as people are often less able to communicate when they are actively dying. Perhaps we do not all have the time or inclination of a retired accountant to be so meticulous in creating a death folder, but talking openly about what your wishes are and putting together your important information can help your loved ones and friends when they are experiencing anticipatory grief (this can happen before someone dies), or grieving their loss.

I also found that talking about death meant that we had the time to say the things we wanted to say to each other. Although it is hearing that is the last sense to go, people who are dying may become unconscious in the days or hours leading up to their death and the chance for them to say what they want to you may be lost.

Talking about death and planning for it can seem like a morbid or difficult thing to do, but it is an important part of life, and understanding that sometimes when someone is in pain or suffering, death can come as a friend, is important. Knowing about the stages of dying and hearing from a clinician about what was likely to happen was helpful in understanding what was going on and in allaying our fears. It also meant that when my Mum’s time came, I was able to recognise the signs of her dying and get her the help she needed. My Mum had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t tell us anything in her last few months. I comfort myself that I told her that I loved her and thanked her for her care of and love for me. I wish I had spoken to her more about death before she became unable to communicate.

As you might imagine, it has been a lot to process, but I hope that by talking about my experience of my parents dying I can help others. Find out what happens while someone is dying – to make it seem less scary – and talk to your people while you can, communicate your important feelings about each other and let each other know what you want. I hope it will help you and others cope when their and your time comes to die.