The moment I learned that my only brother had died was a defining moment — a moment in which I began a life-long exploration of not only my questions but also my answers to “what is life?” and “what is death?”
After the initial shock and devastation, I began to answer the personal question, “who am I now?” A 21-year-old newlywed at the time, the most surprising discovery was how deeply both joy and sorrow were entangled in my mind, body, emotions, and spirit. There was great sadness as I grieved and watched my family and friends mourn, but I also experienced glimpses of joy and happiness as I began a new marriage and adult life.
This paradox of grief was my earliest teacher. A bittersweet paradox, which ultimately I came to understand, is inherent in life and death: Life is strong and fragile, beautiful and ugly, simple and complex, comic and tragic. As humans we have the grand capacity to hold both seemingly contradictory aspects of life at the same time without diminishing the reality of either truth.
Thinking and talking about the “ands” in your life is one of the ways to explore what I call Living Life Dying Death: Healthy Conversations about Death and Dying to Inspire Life and Living.
It is a simple message about a complex topic: talking about death and dying will improve the world in which we live. When we share our experiences, ideas, beliefs, memories, and questions about death, we are more prepared to support ourselves and others during times of serious illness, death, loss and grief.
Here are 11 conversation starters and ideas to keep in mind while having these courageous conversations:
1. Love. Start and end every conversation with words of love and care. The words of the conversation may be forgotten, but love remains.
2. Non-judgment. Reserve judgment. Tolerance and compassion are essential qualities in courageous conversations about death and dying. Remember to apply these qualities to yourself and others as you navigate life and death.
3. Impermanence. Change is constant. The cycle of life includes creativity and destruction. What can you create? What can you let go?
4. Language. Choose words with positive power. When you say a person “gave up” or “lost the battle” you diminish the dying process. Use thoughtful words of love, gratitude, and remembrance.
5. Euphemisms. Confront cultural sayings such as “I’m dying to tell you,” “to die for” and “over my dead body” as an opportunity to initiate conversations about death and dying. What is on your “bucket list”?
6. Loss. Consider the layers of loss you have experienced through death, divorce, pet death, financial changes, relationships dissolving, national disasters – to name a few. Have you found new meanings and values in the losses you have lived through?
7. Uncertainty. Remember that not only does fear live in the unknown, so too do hope and possibility. How might you live fully today in the uncertainty and ambiguity of life?
8. Nature. Celebrate your connections with the universe. Death, dying, grief, and loss are natural and universal. Talking about nature lends itself perfectly to the cycles of living and dying. The ocean, wind, stars, animals, rain, earth, flowers, sun, and moon have much to teach us. Where are you in the seasons of life?
9. Simplicity. Discover what is essential to you in living and in dying. While dying, life is distilled down to the essential.
10. Sadness. Enter into the sadness. Allow it to be present. Courageous conversations sometimes start with admitting and accepting the feelings of anxiety and fear. Speak openly about the feelings of sadness.
11. Life. Live life fully. What might you do today so when you are dying you can say, “I’ve had a wonderful life”?
The Greek philosopher Epicurus is quoted as having said, “The art of living well and the art of dying well are one”.
In our culture, we spend a great deal of time defining “living well.” Let’s learn together what it means to “die well.” Let’s lean into the paradox, lean into the tension between wanting to talk about death and not wanting to talk about death.
Healthy conversations about death and dying allow the strength and beauty of the human spirit to shine.