Wondering what happens after we die might be the oldest question that humanity has asked itself. The question is more often theoretical but can take on more urgency and a higher priority for residents of Manchester and elsewhere who might currently be receiving end-of-life care.
The team at Above and Beyond Home Health Care and Hospice has had this discussion with many of our clients over the years. We don’t know the answer ourselves – our job is to make people as comfortable as possible up to this point.
But we know that this time of life does make people want to talk about this topic more than usual.
Just about every world religion has its own interpretation of what happens after our life in this world ends. Do we go to heaven, which Christian culture often portrays as a friendly, peaceful, and happy place to exist for the rest of eternity? Do we go to a more painful place if we led poor lives? Or, as some faiths suggest, do we get reincarnated into other bodies or even other animals? Do we have other adventures in the cosmos?
Or is death just a simple biological and mechanical process that’s part of the timeless cycle of nature, and we eventually go back into the dirt, with nothing left but others’ memories of us?
Heavy stuff! But end-of-life care can create opportunities to talk about this stuff, whether it’s practical matters like arranging funeral services or finalizing estate matters or more metaphysical discussions about things beyond our understanding and what it all means.
The timing could also encourage someone who never gave much thought to their own mortality to want to learn about death and then discuss it with others. It’s certainly hard for someone to object and say “now is not the right time” when there isn’t a lot of time left. (It happens though – some loved ones and even some people who are receiving hospice care may instead want to talk about more cheery and pleasant topics once in a while since death has become such a reality. And that’s OK too!)
Talking about or even thinking about death can have pleasant aspects – you’ll be free of any pain, stress, or physical exhaustion you’ve been dealing with, and if you follow certain faith traditions, you’ll reunite with other loved ones, join with religious figures, or get where you think you deserve.
But it can also be scary, since it’s an unknown experience, and our Western culture makes death into something that is rarely discussed. It’s not quite a taboo but it is something that isn’t talked about much in casual conversation. And those who do are viewed with suspicion or humor, such as the Addams Family.
It can also be sad, since you’re leaving your loved ones behind, and likely have other regrets about things you haven’t done. You won’t get to have any more experiences with them, and this can be discouraging.
Your loved ones will likely have similar feelings but from their own perspective. They can be scared about what’s happening to you. They can be concerned about what their life will be like without you, whether it’s the immediate things like funerals and paperwork, or longer-term things like holidays or dealing with your possessions.
So, with all these concerns, it can certainly create challenges to even know how to approach the topic in the first place. Yet doing so can be useful, even therapeutic, and can let people share their concerns and anxieties and begin to process their grief. They can comfort each other and maybe share some bonus time together and make lasting happy memories after a good cry together.
Rather than saying “let’s talk about death now,” which can instantly cause defenses to go up, consider looking for other ways to work into talking about this topic.
- Emotional check-in. Seriously ask how family and friends are doing, acknowledging that pending death may be affecting things. How is everyone feeling? What are people scared of? What can we do about it to make us feel better? It could be an opportunity for something special, like a special dinner or dessert together.
- Individual moments. Take some time to meet with one special person at a time so both of you can share your concerns more privately, especially if they don’t know what to say in the larger group.
- Invite experts. Others with familiarity with death and dying may be happy to provide advice or even stop by to be part of a conversation. It could be a therapist, a minister, or a teacher. They can talk to you and your loved ones about what’s ahead and common feelings that everyone may be having. They might be able to provide a historical or spiritual foundation that could provide comfort.
- Look for community resources. There may be support groups or non-profits that deal with death and dying. There could also be events in your community that celebrate death in different ways, such as the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexican cultures which honors departed ancestors. Some in Australia also celebrate Dying to Know Day on Aug. 8, an annual observance of the importance of living well and dying well.