Leo Cooper - Head of Marketing & Communications at North Devon Hospice

COLUMN: Let's break down the stigma around dying

North Devon Gazette

“Come on Mother, let’s have a brew and talk about death.” Not exactly the most enticing invitation, and one which might garner at least a raised eyebrow in response. But why should the one certainty in life make us so uncomfortable? Dying Matters Awareness Week, which took place earlier this month, posed this exact question to the nation. The aim of the campaign is to break down the inherent stigma and encourage people to simply talk about the end of life. These need not be deep and complex conversations (‘what is the meaning of life?’ or ‘what happens when we die?’). They can be practical and actually quite light-hearted. What song would you like played at your funeral? Would you like a small family affair or a big knees-up where the bubbly keeps flowing?

At North Devon Hospice we joined in the conversation for Dying Matters Awareness Week and posed questions on our social media channels, to get people thinking about some of the pertinent issues that arise towards the end of life. The responses were fascinating, and it was wonderful to see such topics being openly discussed with people sharing their thoughts and wishes, which hopefully sparked more conversations offline as well. One comment which struck me came in answer to the question: ‘What would you like to achieve before you die?’ One lady simply replied: ‘Happiness’.

That spoke to a fundamental truth, which is that acknowledging one’s own mortality allows life to be lived to the fullest. That is one of the main reasons why we should normalise talking about death and dying. When we confront the fact that we will die one day, far from making us morbid or morose, the reverse is true. We can make the very most of life, knowing that each day is a gift not to be wasted.

There is also a purely practical reason why these conversations are important to have, and that is so your loved ones are aware of your wishes when the time comes. They should know how and where you’d like to be cared for, how you’d like your passing to be marked and what you’d like to happen to you and your belongings after you die. This takes a huge strain off your loved ones and having these conversations before they become urgent makes them far less emotionally charged.

Our reluctance to talk about dying, or contemplate death in any way, is actually a major risk to the future of the hospice itself. Over the last 15 years I’ve promoted the work we do, so that local people understand just how vital hospice care is in North Devon, and will therefore feel compelled to support the cause. However, many in society are so closed to the concept of death, it means they are unwilling to contemplate what the hospice does and how we help people in our community. If more people were willing to talk about the end of life and realise what an important time it is for everyone involved, then more eyes would be open to the role the hospice plays. This would help to secure our future, as a charity completely reliant on the generosity of the local community.

I would love to live in a world where death and dying are not taboo subject, where we could be honest about our hopes, fears and wishes at the end of our lives. It’s something you can try tonight with one of your friends or family. You could start by asking what their favourite

song of all time is, then follow up by asking if that is the song they’d like played at their funeral. Before you know it, the conversation will be starting.

Our final days are as important as our first. So let’s talk about them.

North Devon Hospice - Credit: Andy Casey Photography.co.uk
North Devon Hospice - Credit: Andy Casey Photography.co.uk

Leo Cooper

Head of Marketing & Communications

North Devon Hospice