Why Covid-19 means talking about death is more important than ever

Dying matters | covid_19

Four minute read

During a pandemic it can be easy to feel like we need less awareness of dying, not more. While it’s completely understandable to need a break from the news, Covid-19 has shown why it’s so important to talk openly about death.

Being able to share what we think and feel has an effect on everything from our collective mental health to how we care for people who have died. Here’s why we think Covid-19 means Dying Matters Week matters more than ever.

Dying to be heard: why are conversations so hard to start?

The theme for Dying Matters Week 2019 is ‘dying to be heard.’ In the past, Dying Matters explored different ways of being more open about death and dying. Now the focus has shifted to how we can be supportive listeners. It’s easy to encourage people to talk about death, while forgetting that there isn’t always a receptive audience — which is why this topic is so important.

Covid-19 showed how difficult it can be to find a space to talk about death. While there has been a lot of thoughtful content about our mental health during lockdown, the same attention hasn’t always been paid to death and dying. Fear and anxiety around dying have remained the elephant in the room during this pandemic.

Part of this is our discomfort about getting too personal, especially in a country that’s historically focused on keeping a stiff upper-lip. But not talking about our emotions doesn’t mean that we don’t have them — it just means they don’t get dealt with.

It’s also important to acknowledge how wide our range of thoughts and feelings about death can be. Maybe you’re just curious, not frightened, and worry that could seem inappropriate. Our fear about ‘getting it wrong’ is a big part of why conversations about death don’t get started.

So, how do we talk about death (especially now)?

When someone wants to talk about death, it’s really common to worry about saying the wrong thing — which can mean avoiding the conversation even though you want to help.

These concerns are completely understandable considering how little we talk about death. There isn’t any obvious model for what’s supposed to happen which can be uncomfortable. That’s especially true right now, when so much feels new and uncertain.

It may be comforting to remember that there’s no single ‘perfect’ conversation about death and grief. Most people’s thoughts and emotions will be complicated and very much unique to them. There will never be a single template to follow — and really there shouldn’t be. That was true before Covid-19 and it continues to be true now.

What matters is the creation of an non-judgmental space to explore ideas and ask questions. You’re also allowed to be human enough to not anticipate what someone wants from a conversation. If you’re not sure what they’re comfortable talking about, it’s fine to ask.

Being a good listener is ultimately about kindness, patience and a willingness to be there with someone, not getting things exactly right.

Why Covid-19 is changing how we talk about death

While Covid-19 has been incredibly challenging, we’ve also seen the outpouring of love and creativity from grieving families and friends.

At Poppy’s, we’ve worked with some amazing celebrants to help hold funerals on video conferencing software. Online eulogies and playlists have been shared, and people at small socially-distanced funerals have also found new ways to say goodbye.

These people have helped show how many different paths there are to planning a meaningful funeral. This doesn’t take away from the real grief and hardship of not being able to have the funeral you imagined. But it does help reveal the essence of what’s important — and that is not the amount of money that you’ve spent, or even the number of people present.

What matters is caring for each other and recognising the unique humanity of the person who has died. During a pandemic, the number of deaths can feel overwhelming. Thoughtful gentle death care means that we don’t lose sight of the person who has died, even when they had no friends or family left. We can still keep hold of their humanity, even if that recognition comes from people working in a mortuary.

Within the funeral sector, transparency about how we work plays a key role in making sure this happens. It’s important that people feel free to ask questions and demand high standards. This is especially true during a pandemic, when so many things are changing quickly.

We’ve been so impressed by the incredible grace and strength of people planning funerals during social distancing. Their efforts are helping us to collectively re-examine what a funeral means — what role it plays, what it can look like, and the ways it can help us grieve.

Dying Matters Week is an opportunity to keep asking those questions and take the time to have a conversation, because people really are dying to be heard.

Read more opinion pieces from Poppy's — why we need to change death care culture and why the first dead person you see shouldn't be someone you love.

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