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Dublin: 11 °C Monday 6 April, 2020

Opinion: Let's talk about death (no, seriously)

Do the Irish really ‘do death well’? We certainly know how to toast the departed, but we have a deep-rooted discomfort around discussing any practical aspect of death.

Claire Micks

LET’S TALK ABOUT death. The ultimate conversation killer.

‘Eh, let’s not …’ would be the obvious response. ‘Jaysus, why on earth would anyone choose to be so morbid’. NEEEXT …

But here’s the thing: we’re all going to come across it sooner or later. And yet it is rarely, if ever, discussed in our ‘highly evolved’, hyper communicative society.

Sure, it is glamorised in our cinemas and on TV. And we simply can’t get enough of any violence that may proceed it (how many characters in Love/Hate have come a cropper already?) But when do we ever really talk about it? It is effectively a ‘no go’ subject. In our homes. In our schools. In our papers. It is just not discussed.

And I don’t mean existential debates on whether St Peter resides at the Pearly Gates, or whether we are nothing more than future fertiliser. I mean learning just a bit about the practicalities which we will all be faced with sooner or later. Hopefully later. But isn’t it better to be prepared?

Unanswered questions

I have a surreal memory of standing in Shanganagh Cemetary less than 12 hours after my mother died picking out a grave. My parents spent 30-odd years paying off a mortgage, yet they never gave a second thought as to where they would be buried. And even if they had, I can only imagine the reaction they would have come up against from us lot over Sunday dinner had they announced they were off to pick out a plot. We never even established what county she would like to be buried in, let alone whether she wanted a mountain or a sea view (we were asked that by the grave -digger. Honestly. How very Monty Python. And we had absolutely no idea).

Did she want a wake? Christ, did that one set the cat amongst the pigeons. ‘Absolutely not. Bloody morbid having a dead body in the house like that’ versus ‘She has to come home. You can’t leave her alone overnight’. Neither opinion right nor wrong. Both understandable in their own way. But both diametrically opposed.

Would it have helped had we known her own preferences? Would it have made a horrendous few days just a smidgen easier to navigate? Absolutely. But any such discussion years earlier during the happier times would have been branded ‘morbid’, ‘depressing’ and ‘in bad taste’. What’s in bad taste is having petty squabbles over unanswered questions which sully what could otherwise be a dignified goodbye. Not exactly Rest In Peace.

Fear clouded our view

And even weeks earlier when the term ‘hospice’ was first mentioned, it sent a chill down my spine. It somehow invoked dreadful images of the express train to the morgue where lost causes were clinically dispatched to the next life and medics no longer intervened. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. There should be a sign over the door that simply reads ‘No more fight’. It was a place where she could truly Go in Peace. If only we had understood the benefits and not let fear and stigma cloud our view, we could have fought so much earlier to have her transferred.

Thankfully she had made a Will. Two thirds of Irish adults have not, which leaves a further chain of unanswered questions and endless potential for family squabbles which can run on long after death. Again a clear signal that whilst some would argue that we Irish ‘do death well’ (we certainly know how to toast the dead), we have a deep-rooted discomfort around discussing or planning any aspect of it.

Losing our superstitions

So how to change things, if we’re willing?

We’re superstitious. We like talking about happy things. We don’t do morbid (unless it’s on the telly). So we’re never going to spend much time thinking about it or discussing it, and nor should we.

But could we consider maybe having some basics on it covered somewhere in our education system? Some simple facts would have served our family well and saved us from hushed, reticent, discussions about matters around which we really didn’t have a clue.

Like advance care directives. Like patient autonomy. Like end of life care.

Like the euphemisms medics use -“Changes in strategy”. “Quality of life”. “Palliative care”. Like how much or how little you’re likely to be told and how that awkward dynamic works.

Like pain management generally. Like the benefits of a hospice. Or dying at home. Like organ donation. Like the Last Rites. Like ‘What to Expect when you’re not expected much longer’.

Like picking a grave. Or a cremation. Like a wake. Or not. Like handling a eulogy and being prepared to say goodbye. Like who carries the coffin. Like what kind of gravestone and what kind of message.

Like death certs and probate and unavoidable admin. Like the aftermath of death and the stages of grief.

Like the Etiquette of Death, which like it or not, does exist and yet is never discussed. Which can leave you completely confounded and bizarrely self conscious at a time when you should just be left to lick your wounds.

A dummies’ guide to death

The Aussies have done it. Never one’s to shy away from anything indelicate, they’ve created a dummies’ guide to death. ‘A plan to normalise discussion about death and end-of-life planning by offering education and information at schools, universities, workplaces and GPs’ practices’.Normalise – that’s the word I’ve been searching for. We don’t need to dwell on it, but can we make it OK to mention it?

Let’s talk about death. Not because we’re morbid or ghouls, not because we’re weirdos or killjoys. But because we accept that none of us will be around forever and we would just like to be prepared. Because talking about it doesn’t bring it any closer (despite our superstitions to the contrary).

We spend enough time waffling on about taxes; let’s consider the other great certainty in life, so that when our time comes, we can be assured to Rest In Peace. And allow our loved ones the time and space they need to grieve, without encountering the learning curve to boot.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer who wandered blindly through her own mother’s illness and subsequent funeral and often wishes she had been better prepared. For everyone’s sake.


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Claire Micks

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