We need to have uncomfortable conversations with family members – it might even clear the air and make ties even stronger
“Not to be morbid, but I think we need to talk about my death,” said my mother, 54. She has bronchiectasis and is highly asthmatic and sat us down to discuss what to do if she is taken into hospital with Covid-19.
It was a bizarre conversation discussing the likelihood of her death and how she wants it all to “go down”. Myself, my brother and father stared, bewildered, as she told us that if she’s in hospital she wants to say goodbye via Skype and to have Radio 4 podcasts played to her. After the doctors do absolutely everything they can, that is – she’s not going down without a fight, she assured us. She would like to be cremated and her ashes scattered on the South Downs, to later be joined by my dad when it’s time.
If she’s in hospital she wants to say goodbye via Skype and to have Radio 4 podcasts played to her.
Pleasant dinner time conversation, right? Not really, but one that was necessary. When you’re high-risk like my mum, these conversations are important to have. And even if you’re not, in times like these it can’t hurt to be prepared.
Now, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always her plan. Previously whenever this conversation had arisen my mother had been sure that ‘her time was her time’ and that her ashes were to be scattered in a picturesque field in Tuscany. Many people will need to have to have these uncomfortable conversations, the important thing is to not shy away from them but to embrace the limited decisions we can make.
Some may argue that a global pandemic in which hundreds of people are dying every day is not the time to discuss such a depressing topic and added negativity is not going to make already vulnerable people feel any better. However, to that I would say that in the long run it really is the best thing to do for them and you. It’s about taking control of the situation if the worst possible thing happens. It’s important to feel you have any kind of power over what happens to you or your family member.
So, it made sense why my mum had brought it up: she wanted to know that at a time when we would be worried and scared, that there would be a plan and one that she had drawn up.
After our strange chat, mum revealed that she had been listening to the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast about death, which was what prompted her to consider her possible demise. I was intrigued.
In the podcast Adam Fleming spoke about his uncomfortable relationship with death and how difficult he, like many others, finds it to speak about. Which is true of course, we do shy away from death. The topic is pretty taboo in British culture, which begs the question of why – possibly, because we’re worried about being seen as negative or morbid. Regardless, with so much death around at the moment we need to learn to speak about it openly.
The topic is taboo in British culture, we’re worried about being seen as negative or morbid.
He spoke to palliative care expert Kathryn Mannix about difficult conversations to have with your family in this time. She spoke of the hesitance people feel towards using ‘D words’ – like died and death. She called the coronavirus pandemic a ‘game changer’ for how we care for our family members at the end.
One of the most worrying aspects has to be the idea no longer being able to say goodbye to your loved ones. However, through the wonders of modern technology, no one has to die alone in hospital. The incredible NHS staff have been holding up phones and tablets to allow the patients’ families to attempt to give as normal a send-off as possible.
Many people have contacted Kathryn about how they can ensure their wishes are carried out if they do fall ill to Covid. For example, they wouldn’t want to be put on a ventilator, but they would want oxygen through a mask, or that they wouldn’t want to go to hospital at all.
Through the wonders of modern technology, no one has to die alone in hospital.
Her advice was simple: our families need to know what we want – there has to be a plan. The process of discussing and being completely honest about our wishes can help the family and the patient feel prepared for what is to come. So that we know what to say if a doctor calls and says, ‘what do you want us to do with your loved one?’ we can then say ‘actually they told me…’ without hesitation.
We’ve been hearing for months now, about the difficulty of laying family and friends to rest with social distancing restrictions in place. Having no more than 10 people at a service is not how most people expect their funerals to take place. Again, there is some comfort to be taken from making preparations in this current climate. For my mum it was abandoning the field in Tuscany and settling for the Down’s not far from our house.
You may be thinking ‘I don’t live with my parents how am I supposed to make these plans in lockdown?’ The answer to that – and it seems to apply to everything these days – is Zoom. Or perhaps Skype, Facetime, HouseParty – whatever your chosen video call platform is. Simply call up your family and have the conversation. Of course, send a text warning them, it’s not the type of talk you want to spring on someone when they’re expecting a quiz or a cosy catch-up.
The main message is that in times when plans are awry, we can still control certain aspects of our lives by having a conversation, whether it’s when to turn the ventilator off, or something smaller, like the flowers at the funeral.
The more we talk about death the easier it will be at the end, for all parties involved. So, hey maybe mum was on to something after all – as uncomfortable and difficult as these conversations are, they need to be had. For everyone’s sake.