Thinking About Dying: The Conversation
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about dying. I’ve also been pondering how to die. I hope you won’t find this subject too off-putting or macabre. The thing is, I have had the chance to talk to a lot of people about the subject over the past few weeks. I have come to the conclusion that death is a timely topic for Baby Boomers. As Boomers, we can’t help but face our mortality. Many of us have lost our parents, friends and siblings. I want to explore this concept because I find it profound and want to toss it out there. If you strive to live a good life, why shouldn’t you try to die a good death?
I’ve talked before about attending the “Death Café” sessions here in Richmond. The people I met there and the conversations we had were fascinating. People often recoil when I say the words “Death Café,” but let me assure you these sessions are quite enlightening. Talking with others about the emotions and fears and personal experience surrounding death, as the Death Café encourages, is a way to anticipate this process with acceptance rather than fear and dread.
You can read more details about death cafes in separate posts, but I was intrigued by the words of Shelby Kirillin, host of the session: “Ignorance is not bliss, it is just a different kind of terror.” I agree: Why not prepare for the end so that it happens the way you want it, and avoid undue stress on those you leave behind?
Shelby is an End of Life “doula.” Likely you have heard this title used before in terms of a childbirth advocate, someone who helps a mother through labor and with the new baby. Shelby assists a dying person, as she says, in “laboring” death, making sure they are as comfortable as possible, attending to their needs and wishes, and interfacing with the grieving family.
This concept should resonate with no one more than Baby Boomers. We were the generation that demanded change. To use the childbirth example, ours was the generation that welcomed and often insisted in experiencing natural childbirth, that wanted this experience to be their own, and the decisions surrounding it their own, not dictated by a doctor. In a similar vein, an end of life doula makes sure your death unfolds the way you wish, according to your plan. Most people carefully plan for their wedding, and many women have a birth plan. Why should this last journey not be planned, with your physical and emotional and spiritual needs cared for so you and your loved ones can say goodbye in a special, personal and hopefully beautiful and peaceful way? Of course, nature often intervenes and we can’t choose our time or place of death–understood. Shelby’s clients have all been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to have some sense of control over what lay ahead.
I recall another interesting conversation I had with a colleague who has served as a funeral celebrant. Kathleen worked with family of the deceased in order to collect, and then deliver, a personal history that celebrated the life of their loved one and the impact they made on the world. What a beautiful addition to a memorial service.
As uncomfortable as all this is to talk about, another critical piece of this discussion is the need to plan ahead for the years preceding death, in order to anticipate a greater sense of peace at your finale. My partner at Boomer Connections, Rita McCulloch, has built her business on the concept of getting one’s affairs in order “Before the Stress Begins”—which is the title of a guidebook she has written on the subject. During my discussions with Rita, she has shared too many stories about her clients whose parents did not divulge the details of their estates or their wishes to their children, and left behind a difficult and conflictive situation for a grieving family. These stories are a lesson to me.
All of these conversations have seamlessly melded with my recently acquired passion for storytelling that I have incorporated into my business, Company B Communications. As a writer, I am starting to find that there is no greater satisfaction than capturing an individual’s life story and the lessons learned in their many years on this earth. For the teller, as they recount their lives, they are reminded what was meaningful. For the loved ones, such a memoir is a tangible and lasting written memory of who they were and what they left behind.
Again, I use the word “profound.” All of these concepts are profound to me: Capturing your life story, but also passing on the lessons you learned…Recounting and celebrating your life as your memorial when you pass, despite the inevitable sadness and loss…Taking care of the practical matters so your heirs are not stressed while they are also grieving…Accepting the inevitable and embracing a peaceful end to a life well lived.
It meant a lot to Boomers to seek to live a meaningful life. Why shouldn’t we hope for a meaningful death, a meaningful memorial, and leave a meaningful legacy?
One absolute in this gift of life we have been given is death. Why not choose how you exit and how you are remembered?
As a storyteller and memoirist, I believe with all my heart that everyone has a fascinating story to tell, everyone has a legacy of lessons to leave behind, and capturing these is a wonderful and beautiful thing. And I feel just as strongly that everyone has the right to die as they wish, and with dignity and grace.
This is an important discussion. Let’s get it going.