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Let’s Talk About Death

On Saturday I had the privilege to have lunch with my 93-year-old friend and her daughter. Mrs F spent her life in service of others, starting the first association for people living with different abilities in then South West Africa. It was known as “Kreupelsorg” – care for the crippled. The organisation grew, and many of us will remember the little figurine of a girl in leg braces with crutches, holding a money box for donations. When they moved to South Africa, Mrs F became involved as a volunteer with the ACVV an active member making a difference in the lives of children and older people in need. Selfless. Stoic. Getting in and out of the car is now a battle, cutting her food takes a huge effort.

A mind as sharp as a razor, she takes a sip of her wine and confesses that her prayer at night is to not wake up in the morning. She has lived a full life and is now ready to go. (As another 90-year-old told me recently, the only thing on her bucket list now is to get to heaven.) Mrs F’s daughter and I immediately want to convince her that we do not want her to go. She still has so much to offer, we are so in awe of her presence, etc. And suddenly I realise how sel sh we are, and what pressure we put on Mrs F by not respecting and acknowledging her feelings. Why is it so dif cult for us to acknowledge the fact that she has indeed come to the end of her life? That she deserves to pass on, to leave this world, to die in peace? Why do we insist on trying to convince her of our needs, our inability to gracefully accept and acknowledge the end of life? Why can we not have a conversation about death? Mrs F apparently has numerous boxes of “stuff” that need to be sorted. I think (what the hell do I know…) that her daughter should help her to start sorting things out. To say “ok Mom, I acknowledge and respect your wish to die. Let’s start making plans…” Yes, this is not an easy conversation. Yes, it almost feels like a betrayal to say “I hear that you want to die, and I accept it”.

Would it not make life a lot simpler if we can prepare for our death when we know that it is time to go? Unpack and sort out all the stuff that we have in storage, and tell those around us what to do with it. Tell them how we would like our memorial service to be. Many are denied the preparation. My aunt who recently got killed by a truck while crossing the road could not have this discussion, leaving a family devastated and unprepared. Many older people want to die, they tell us this in no uncertain terms.

Maybe it is time that we change the discourse. Say “Yes, I hear you. How can I help to make it easier for you?” (And of course, I do not mean actively killing them!). To give them the reassurance that you are ok with their wish, to give them permission, grant them autonomy, talk to them about their feelings, and tell them how sad it will be. But we stop pretending not to hear them when they say that they are ready to die. We are so focussed on “person-centred care” in life. Let us focus on a person-centred death, and start to make it easier for people who have come to the end of their lives to let go, to not make them feel guilty to want to leave this world. Let us walk the path with them, making sure that they feel loved and comforted right up to the end.

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