If between the post-Christmas tidy-up and New Year’s Eve parties you’ve forgotten to think of a New Year’s resolution, then death positivity could be the answer. Yes, really. In fact, there's a growing movement which suggests that confronting our own mortality is a great way to make the most of life and think about the legacy we'll leave behind us when we're gone.
What is death positivity?
In recent years the death positive movement has been embraced by charities, palliative care organisations, funeral directors and individuals. It champions the idea that being more open about end of life topics can have a beneficial impact on your life. People who support death positivity try to break down the taboo around talking about death in order to have a positive impact on individuals and society.
Being death positive doesn’t mean thinking that death is a good thing. The death positive movement certainly does not trivialise the suffering of those affected by the death of a loved one. In fact, those who strive to be death positive are more likely to want to acknowledge and understand both their own feelings of loss and the grief of others.
The death positive movement is about re-familiarising ourselves with those end of life matters that we have become distanced from. In recent decades in first world countries, thanks in part to ground-breaking medical advances, death has become less of a part of everyday life. Falling death rates and changes in where and how we care for the dying means that for many people, the sudden death of a loved one is often profoundly shocking.
While these improvements to our healthcare and lifespans are, clearly, an incredibly positive change, there is a flip side. With death happening less regularly, and more often in the hospital than at home, we’ve become unaccustomed to death. For many people, this has resulted in feeling uncomfortable, even afraid, to talk about end of life issues.
Our fears and reluctance to talk about death can be problematic. Imagine that you never got round to writing a will, and your loved ones are inadvertently cut off from inheriting after you die. Or maybe a loved one is seriously ill and unable to communicate – would you know what treatment they would and wouldn’t want? Would you know whether to agree to organ donation or not?
For those who believe in the death positive movement, it is only by accepting that death happens, and it happens to everyone, that we can be empowered to make important decisions about our lives. Death positivity can have a really significant impact, as we think about the legacy we’ll be leaving behind.
Why be death positive?
Why would anyone want to think about death? While it’s not a pleasant thing to dwell on for many people, there are some real-life benefits to confronting the inevitable:
- The taboo around death doesn’t help anyone. The Order of the Good Death is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists and a leading force in the death positive movement. The not-for profit organisation believes we have become ‘death-phobic’, saying that “by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good” to our society. It says death-phobia prevents people from making important decisions about end of life care, their funeral or their estate. Furthermore, the silence around death leads to a culture where death, and those who are dying, are treated with fear.
- Talking and thinking about death can help your emotional well-being. That’s right – psychologists are continually reaffirming the link between thinking about death and valuing life. When you understand that your time is limited and precious, you’re more likely to savour every moment and strive for whatever you want to achieve.
- Being open to conversations about death lets you plan for your future. Whether it’s ticking things off your bucket list, or getting your estate in order, being death positive will encourage you to plan ahead. Besides achieving what you want from life, things like making a will or writing down your funeral wishes will ensure there’s less stress for loved ones once you’re gone.
- And you can make sure loved ones get the care they deserve at the end of life. According to Dying Matters, only 18% of British adults say they have asked a family member about their end of life wishes. It seems that the awkwardness discussing death could have real implications for the kind of end of life care you and your loved ones receive. Do you know where they’d want to be in their final days? If they’d want to donate their tissue and organs? What kind of treatment they would and wouldn’t want to receive? These are all vital questions that you need answered before it is too late.
Get the conversation started
So if you’ve decided to be more death positive this year, what’s the next step? It might not be as clear-cut as signing up to the gym or starting a new diet, but the effects could be just as beneficial.
- Do you have a will? Why or why not?
- What would be the ideal way to spend your last days? Who would you want beside you?
- What kind of funeral would you want? Are there any funeral options (such as embalming, cremation, natural burial) that you would absolutely love or hate to happen to you?
- How would your family or loved ones pay for your funeral?
- What do you think happens after we die?
- How do you want to be remembered? If you could pick three words that you’d like to know were in your eulogy, what would they be?
Another way you could embrace death positivity is to attend a death cafe. These informal social groups allow people who want to discuss end of life issues to meet and talk in a relaxed, friendly environment.
For more information on the benefits of discussing end of life issues, plus resources to inspire important conversations, take a look at Dying Matters’ website.