CAN WE TALK ABOUT DYING?
By Lynne Calkins
“Make friends with death. Get comfortable with it, and you will have a much fuller, happier life.” Seriously? Sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it? Who wants to be friends with such a taboo subject? Sounds kind of scary, maybe makes us a little sad.
Death is definitely “the elephant in the room” that no one wants to talk about, especially while we are young and healthy but also when a loved one is seriously ill.
I recently heard Dr. Bob Uslander, of Integrated MD Care in Del Mar, CA (and a member of End of Life Choices California’s Advisory Board) whom I greatly admire say, “make friends with death” on his regular podcast. Dr. Uslander is considered an expert on death and dying and living. He is a palliative care physician who helps people with chronic, serious illnesses feel as good as possible and enjoy the last chapter of their lives as much as possible. Often, these are people who, even though they do not want to die, accept that it is inevitable, and they talk about their dying, that “elephant in the room,” and how they envision it. They have taken control over their dying; they feel lighter, empowered. “Dying is the one thing we all do,” he says, so why not embrace it?
What does he mean by “get comfortable” with death? I believe he means that because we all die, we should bring this topic out of the closet, shine a light on it, and talk about how we would want our dying to be. I know that for me, like most people, I would like to die at home, with my husband at my side. I have talked about it aloud to my spouse and children and named the person to speak for me if I am unable to do so. I’ve written it down in an Advance Directive (AD), signed it and had it witnessed. I have given copies to my husband, my children and my doctor; it is in my medical chart. This document clearly directs my doctor and family as to what I want if someday I cannot speak for myself.
I can honestly say that once I had done the above I immediately felt lighter, happier, and liberated; knowing that if something unexpected were to happen, and I was unconscious with no hope of recovery, my family will know what is important to me. They will try to get me home. What my family doesn’t realize is that this gift to them helps guide them, should this situation ever occur.
There are numerous accounts of people who have said they want to die at home, but sadly, they never told their loved ones, never wrote it down, so when the time came that they were unconscious, from stroke or car accident, they died in a hospital, in an ICU, with tubes in every orifice of their body, because no one knew what they wanted, and the default went to the medical personnel.
Let’s acknowledge “the elephant in the room”: Let’s admit that we are going to die, hopefully not soon, but that we will all eventually die. Let’s get comfortable talking about how we would like to die, where we want to be, who we would like to be present. Let’s have that conversation about death with our family, loved ones, and physician and get comfortable with that “elephant in the room.” The sooner we do and write down our wishes in an Advance Directive, the more likely it is that wishes are respected. Our family and friends will be grateful to have the opportunity to help us achieve our goals.
Please go to our website where you will find an Advance Directive form to download and complete. Sign it, have it witnessed, and give copies to your loved ones and physician. If you have any questions, or would like help completing an Advance Directive, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how we can help you.
With special thanks to Dan Piraro for permission to use The Elephant in the Room to help us illustrate so clearly the complexity of discussing our end of life wishes.