"Putting Down the Spoon" with Vicki Barry

 

Vicki is a self confessed "end-trepreneur" with a passion for educating people about their choices and rights with the hope that we all get the best ending in life possible. Here's some of her incredible story. Enjoy.

Over the years I have become increasingly concerned about the medicalization of the dying process, the unrealistic expectations of treatment to prolong life, and the reluctance of healthcare professionals and families to engage in meaningful end of life conversations. I'm also disenfranchised with the funeral industry here in WA which seems intent on maintaining business and death care practices as usual at costs exceeding the national average.

I faced the prospect of my own death at 17 as the result of a car accident where I sustained burns to 17% of my body. My dad was admitted to hospital a few days later and diagnosed with cancer. We spent his last Christmas in hospital together. He died a year later on the anniversary of my accident. That same year, the friend who rescued me from the car only seconds before it exploded was killed in a motorbike accident. These collective experiences of death and loss were profound, especially at this stage in my life. It made me realise just how precious life is.

My advice would be to contemplate your own death while you are well. If you get the opportunity to be with someone who is dying take it. Don't be afraid. Also, be reminded that each time you suffer a loss, whether your job, a friendship, a pet, moving house, divorce, whatever... these are all deaths, and yet life goes on. One door close and another one opens. One life ends and another one begins. That is life.

Recently I had the privilege of actively participating in the washing and shrouding of the body of a deceased Muslim woman. The Islamic funeral practice is as natural as it gets. The custom and rituals of the process are simple, respectful and well directed so that even the uninitiated like myself can undertake the assigned tasks with ease. I was amazed at how quickly the shroud was 'ripped' to measure and the seven cotton pieces laid out in readiness for the washed and dried body. An absolute delight to witness and partake in the process from start to finish.

I'm passionate about bringing death and dying back to community so we are more involved in caring for our loved ones at end of life. There is a beautiful expression, "putting down the spoon", which in times past signalled to family and community that one was at the end of life. Feeding would cease, funeral plans would begin, and people would visit to say their goodbyes and pay their last respects to give closure. Death and mourning were very visible in the community.

 

“What's the point of talking about death or planning for death?

 "What's the point of talking about or planning for death? 

- I’d rather focus on life."

In the same way that the map of Australia isn’t complete without Tasmania, the ‘circle of life’ is incomplete without death.

Death is considered by many as too sad, too scary, too unfamiliar and therefore too difficult to discuss. Most people choose not to go there. They ignore death and dying until it slaps them in the face, until it’s too late to prepare. Avoiding death only puts off the inevitable and leaves little time to be ready for what’s ahead.

Preferring to focus only on ‘life’ in an effort to somehow keep death at bay, is a half-baked approach. Death is part of our lives whether we like it or not. Not talking about death is a missed opportunity and many are compromised at the end of life, because they chose not keep quiet.

·       Over 70% of us die in hospital though most of us would prefer to die at home  

·       Very few of us outline our plans for treatment and care at the end of our lives and almost half of us die without a will. (ref PCA 2013)

·       Seventy five percent of people have not had end of life discussions yet sixty percent think we don’t talk about death enough.

Last month Prince Harry publicly noted his regret that only talked about the death of his mother a few years ago, sixteen years after the event. 

John Troyer, Deputy Director, Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath suggests that “what most people need is a reason or a little bit of encouragement to know that it is not weird or macabre to have these discussions” about death.

What’s the point of talking about death?

Talking about death makes us focus on life. This article suggests that fear of dying “stimulates us to cherish those we love, create enduring memories, pursue our hopes and dreams and achieve our potential”.

We’re all going to die one day. Guaranteed. So let’s not be surprised about death any longer. Let’s dive into deliberate discussions about dying. Sure it might be uncomfortable, but what would you prefer?

·       Feeling a bit awkward with someone you love, or living with regret because you didn’t tell them what they meant to you?

·       Ending up on life support after 85 fulfilling years, or dying at home, with your family and dog by your side?

·       Taking one last course of treatment or one last visit to your favourite beach house?

·       Capturing your grandma’s stories of her childhood or wondering what she was like as a young woman.

·       Stressing at the thought of organising your father’s funeral, or confidently putting his plans into place?

7 reasons why we should talk about death

Talking can be tough, but silence can be rough.

It takes courage to talk about death, especially if you’re entering unfamiliar territory. As Brene Brown says, “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability”. It’s only human to feel vulnerable, yet the more we practice talking about death, the more courageous and comfortable and normal it becomes. Talking about dying opens up conversations an insights that we may never have imagined.

Talking about death:

1. Breaks down the barriers that keep our thoughts and fears inside our heads and hearts. Sharing helps us deal with them.

2. Builds bridges that strengthen connections with the people we care about. It helps us  understand what others are thinking. It’s better than making assumptions.

3. Switches on lightbulbs. Talking offers new insights, new information, more to consider. It helps us make sense of our thoughts and actions when we confront the end of life. New perspectives create greater opportunities.

4. Generates curiosity. Asking questions about dying and seeking answers that clarify confusion and fear creating more open, death-accepting societies. 

5. Dampens our fears. Tossing around the reasons we’re scared can help us make sense of our feelings. Most of us fear something about death. Talking about it helps each other deal with it. Professionals can assist when times are really difficult.

6. Helps clear the fog. Conversations can reduce the ‘overwhelm’ associated with dying and death. Asking questions and giving explanations clarifies concerns and helps create greater calm and acceptance.

7. Reminds us that we’re mortal. It gives living an edge by sharpening our focus on making the most of the precious time we have. 

7 reasons why we should plan for death

Being thrust into dying without preparation means people will die in ways they don’t choose and families will flounder in times of great sadness. Making and discussing plans now sets up a smoother path for later.

Planning for death:

1. Maps our preferences for treatment and care at the end stage of life and lifts the weight of responsibility from your loved ones. Making life and death decisions is incredibly difficult for family members during an emotional crisis.

2. Creates fitting farewells. Planning a funeral well before death gives a personal touch to a memorable event.

3. Makes long lasting memories. Sharing thoughts, lessons, stories and recollections leaves lasting treasured memories of and for the people you love.

4. Diminishes regret. Discussions allow us to say and do what matters, with the people we love, before it’s too late.

5. Avoids financial and legal complications. Dying without a will creates dilemmas and often divides grieving families.

6. Offers peace of mind. Discussing your wishes with the people you love increases the chance that they’ll be honoured and respected.

7. Allows for legacy. A handwritten letter, a favourite plant, the smell of your perfume, a gift or memento, a song or a poem, a bequest to a cause – these personal gifts keep your memory alive in the minds and hearts the people who matter.

In their song, ‘Do you realise?’ The Flaming Lips remind us that we, and everyone we know, some day, will die. Sometimes it take a song to remind us that we’re mortal.

So what are you waiting for? A true focus on life includes a focus on death.

Tell the people you love how your feel, make some plans for your future, make friends with death. Get to know it, question it, understand it and open up to death a little more.

Talking about death is good for us. It inspires us to shine a light on life.

 

***

Julie Hassard is a speaker, facilitator, mentor, author and consultant, determined to demystify death and inspire people to ‘Do Dying Better’.

Her talks and programs guide individuals, families and health care personnel to explore and make sense of the end of life, so they can make plans for the best experiences of dying and death possible.

Find our more: julie@juliehassard.com

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