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Courageous Conversations: Navigating the Unspoken Realities of Anticipating a Loved One's Death

May 2022, I got a call from my dad. He wanted me to come to Mexico earlier to spend time with him and my sister. I moved forward with my flights. The initial plan was that my sister will spend a few days with him, then, I will take over for another few days. However, this call sounded different. When I asked my dad why, he said: ‘So you spend more time with your sister, you both live far away’ (for context my sister lives in New York and I live in London). I knew this wasn’t the main reason, but I went with it.

Why did I not dig deeper?

I knew the underlying message, I knew what he meant. He called me straight after a doctor appointment. He just could not verbalise that he wanted to be with us, enjoying us for as little or as long as possible. I knew he saw his death coming soon but I just could not talk about it either.

I was afraid to imagine a world without him. I have lost grandparents and other people close to me, but never a parent.

I was also worried that if I brought up the topic of his death, he will think I am giving up.

To be honest, it was all in my head. He knew what was coming and accepted it. I know this because of previous hints he’s given me. However, he was in the same mindset as me. He did not want to bring it up because he wouldn’t want me to see him as if he was giving up and ready to ‘leave me’.

Do you see what is happening here?

Two different people who love and care for each other, avoiding conversations to not make the other feel worse than they are already feeling.

What I have learnt after 2 years of experience caring for a terminally ill person, losing a parent, literature research and end-of-life training is that this behaviour is completely normal.

But the fact that it is normal, does not mean it is good or bad. However, sometimes we have to break from what is normal or conventional. These things feel safe, comfortable, and in fact sometimes not talking about things reduces the ‘realness’ of things. There is a reason why we avoid difficult topics.

It takes courage and acceptance to talk about difficult topics like death, but it also takes knowledge and societal change to move forward with the way we talk about these topics, the way our ancestors did.

How do you start having conversations about death?

There isn’t a straightforward recipe, which is something I have learnt from my end-of-life doula course. They say ‘you have to meet them exactly where they are’. This sounds vague, I know. What it means is that you should not go full in on certain topics if you feel the person is not willing or open to do so. It takes a bit of exploration and testing the waters. Baby steps. Be sensitive to timing.

Regardless, before you even think about having these sorts of conversations with someone you care about, first you need to understand yourself and your emotions.

Ask yourself:
  • Your thoughts / views on death. What have you learnt culturally or through your life’s experience? Do you still follow those views? If not, what has changed and why?

  • What are your intentions? By this I mean, what do you want to get out of this conversation, either with yourself or a loved one. Do you want to make them feel supported? Do you want to feel more comfortable with the topic of death and acceptance?

Ways to manage emotions

Acknowledge Your Feelings: Allow yourself to recognise and express the range of emotions you're feeling – whether it's sadness, fear, anger, or a mix of them. It's okay to feel this way during such a difficult time.

Explore Spiritual or Religious Practices: For some, engaging in spiritual or religious practices can provide solace and a sense of connection during challenging times.

Express Your Emotions Creatively: Writing, drawing, or engaging in other creative activities can be therapeutic. It allows you to express and process your emotions in a way that feels comfortable for you.

Consider Professional Help: If the emotional burden becomes overwhelming, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional, such as a therapist, end-of-life doula or counsellor, who can provide guidance and support.

See you in 2 weeks!

Fernanda

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