That we shall all die is a certainty. Yet, in this western culture, this truth is pushed to the furthest possible corner of our consciousness until it makes itself known to us, and we have no option but to look into its murkiness. It is the sure but unpredictable shadow that accompanies us on our journey through life, familiar but completely unknown.
Peeking behind the curtain
Whilst we are healthy, most people don’t talk about death or dying. Many of us, even when faced with it choose to keep it behind a curtain in the dusty corridors of our conscious mind, along with other tricky topics we seldom visit. We will peek behind the curtain every now and then, but as soon as we can, we quickly close it and head back into more familiar and comfortable territory where we can feel safe again.
This ‘avoidance’ is the most utilised mechanism in our defence toolbox. We swerve around those difficult, sticky or challenging conversations. The ones where we know the outcome may lead us into unwelcome change, experiencing emotional discomfort and meeting the sharp edge of uncertainty in that space of ‘not knowing’. If we avoid situations, it means we spare ourselves the inevitable pain and we can literally ‘fool’ our psyche into believing that everything is really absolutely fine.
Fear is known to us. It drives many of our behaviours and it very helpfully keeps us safe from harm. But fear can also tip over into being unhelpful, especially when it limits or restricts the way we live our lives. The difference, it seems, between fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of heights or any of the social phobias, is that there are professional people and methodology to help us alleviate our anxiety if we are prepared to face it.
There are practical and psychological remedies, and societally we are widely encouraged to seek help if we need it. We don’t naturally talk about our fears around death though. We tend to keep them hidden. In general, we don’t plan for it, we don’t make our thoughts and feelings known. We aren’t open or transparent with our friends and family about our own particular beliefs, concerns, anxieties or wishes.
These conversations are, in the main, absent, as we perpetuate an unspoken fear from generation to generation and we all learn to keep quiet about death. We ‘should not’ talk or think about the unthinkable, each of us unconsciously protecting ourselves under the guise of protecting others.
What if this could be different? What if we could:
Connect to a place of safer uncertainty about death?
Openly discuss our feelings, fears, concerns and beliefs about death?
Normalise discussion around death in our homes, our workplace and our communities?
Embrace death as a part of life?
In my work in Coaching and Counselling, one of the most important shifts that clients can make to help them move forward is to find clarity of thought. This newfound clear headedness helps them to form their next steps, understand what it is that has held them to ransom, caused them to suffer, restricted their thinking or just got in their way. The way ahead may still be very challenging and they may have to dig very deep and face difficult times, but they now have an understanding, a new perspective and a renewed belief in themselves.
Making space for death
How might it be for all of us to give ourselves the space to really consider what death means to us? If we were able to freely speak and be heard, giving voice to what is important to us about death and dying. How can we also learn to listen to others’ perspectives without fear but rather with curiosity, honour and respect?
What if we pulled back that curtain, cleared away the dust, redecorated the room and gave death an honest and authentic place in our lives? A place we can visit safely, sometimes on our own and also, routinely, with others. A place where we can deepen our understanding of and nurture our relationship with death. A place where we feel safer with the uncertainty.
Let’s do something with it - Conversations about death
Perhaps the starting point is a conversation with ourselves about death. To follow are some questions to begin an internal dialogue that may lead to conversations with others.
What thoughts, feelings or reflections has reading this brought up for you?
What conversations would you like to have about death?
Who would they be with ideally?
How might these conversations about the truth of death be useful and helpful to you?
What small step could you safely take in talking about death with another?
Kay McCandless is an Executive Coach and Relationship Counsellor. Kay is an Associate at Matt Lock Leadership.
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