Finding ways to talk about death with those you love
We seldom find it easy to speak about death, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made avoiding this topic increasingly difficult. How can broaching the subject with a loved one bring us closer together? What should we say? Emotional Intelligence expert Dr. Rina de Klerk-Weyer offers a list of questions we can ask regarding the practical and emotional aspects of death. The answers will clarify our own views as well as those of the loved ones we speak to.
“Why is there such a big difference between your first and your last breath? When someone is pregnant, we feel excited, we plan, we talk about it endlessly and look forward to the birth. When someone is dying, on the other hand, we seldom mention it. It’ almost as if we believe the moment we talk about it it will make it real, and then it will happen,” says Dr. Rina de Klerk-Weyer, Learning and Development Specialist, author, and life coach who focuses on Emotional Intelligence.
“Perhaps avoiding difficult issues is part of our culture and habitual patterns. Maybe we like to pretend – especially when we’re young - that we’re invincible and that death only happens to others.”
Avoiding the subject can lead to regrets
“Regardless of the reasons, we often have regrets after someone has died. We realise there are so many things we do not know, such as their thoughts and feelings on death and dying, and their views on how it should be approached. This can have a negative impact on the emotional healing process and complicate the practical reality of sorting everything out.
“Which questions can we ask our nearest and dearest – and ourselves - to make this process easier and create more peace regarding the concept of death and dying?
“The lists below are only suggestions and can be applied while keeping in mind
*your relationship with the other person; how close you are will determine the extent you want to talk about this subject and which questions you’d like to include
*that it’s best to look for a natural opportunity for discussion; make sure the time and place is suitable
*that some people will be more open to discussing the emotional questions, while the practical considerations may resonate with others
*that this may involve a series of conversations
*that tailoring the process to the individuals involved may include printing the questions so that each person can write down their answers, followed by a discussion; choosing a few questions to ask the other person and writing down their answers; discussing one question daily over a cup of tea, perhaps involving more than one family member (if age-appropriate); conducting the discussion by email if relatives live elsewhere. There are many ways to go about this.
Questions regarding practical considerations
If you are the person who passes away, would you prefer those closest to you to organise the funeral in a way that makes it easier for them, perhaps because you believe the event is more about them than about you? Or do you have a picture of the way your funeral should be conducted that you want your loved ones to be aware of?
Do you want to be buried or cremated? Why is it important to you?
If you wish to be cremated, where do you want your ashes to be kept or strewn? Is there a particular place that has a special meaning for you?
Is a specific graveyard involved, and have you already bought a plot?
Do you have a funeral policy?
Are you an organ donor, and if yes, why?
Would you prefer a specific pastor, church, or venue for the memorial service?
Are their specific people that you would like to carry the coffin?
Are all your documents and your will in place?
Is there a specific person close to you who knows where your documents are kept?
Do you want a fancy or a basic coffin and do you have any preference regarding the flowers?
Is there a song that means a lot to you that you wish to be played at your funeral?
Should certain things be included in the memorial service, such as a specific passage from the Bible or another sacred text, photographs, or video slides that reflect special moments in your life?
Are there any possessions to which you attach sentimental value that you would like certain people to have, that are not stipulated in your will?
Are there certain documents or possessions that you consider private and wish to be destroyed after your death? Who would you trust to do this?
Do you want to be kept alive on a support system, or do you want the machines to be switched off if needed? Do you have a living will?
Are there specific people that you would like to attend (or not attend) your funeral?
Questions regarding the emotional issues
How do you visualise your legacy? How do you want to live the rest of your days, not knowing how many days you have left?
Is there anything regarding dying that you are afraid of, such as enduring pain, or the physical process of dying?
Do you want your funeral to be a positive celebration of your life or an opportunity to mourn and miss you?
Would you prefer to die in your sleep, or have a chance to say goodbye to the people you love?
Are you at peace with what you believe will happen to you after your death?
Are there things you still need to sort out or finalise before you die?
Are there people you still need to forgive or things you still need to do in order to have closure and to experience inner peace?
Would you be able to accept it if you died tomorrow?
Would you prefer to pass on with the least amount of fuss (or very few rituals) as you feel you have had a full life and that people will remember you because of how you lived?
Is there a last message for those you leave behind? Are there, for instance, things that you regret and would prefer to have done differently? Are there, perhaps, lessons you have learned, e.g. that one needs to live fully?
Although these conversations require courage and may be hard to initiate, they can lead to greater understanding between loved ones. They can help those involved gain clarity regarding their own needs, wishes and highest values – and those of their conversation partners. Honesty creates intimacy.
If broaching the subject of death and dying doesn’t go down well, having made the effort will at least ease any regrets experienced after a loved one’s death.
Dr. Rina de Klerk-Weyer - Learning and Development Specialist, author, and life coach who focuses on Emotional Intelligence - is based in Johannesburg. She works with individuals and groups, in person or online, and offers a variety of books and online courses.
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org