Are You in Death Denial?

End of life planning can seem morose, depressing and maybe scary. This is why only 42 percent of US adults have a will or trust. Only one in three people have advanced life directives. Many Americans avoid setting up a will because they don’t want to think about their death and because of procrastination. They may subconsciously think “I’m going to live forever.” Everyone wants to believe they will live into their 80s, 90s or longer. Average life expectancy has climbed steadily but it is not endless. Longevity seems to have topped out around 120 years. Jeanne Calment of France died in 1997 at age 122. But it is certain that we will all die.

Considering the fact that everyone dies serves as a reality check and a challenge. Contemplating the end of life can make the time we’re here longer, healthier, and happier. Life will end, yet many of us avoid thinking of it, put off end-of-life planning, and are at a loss of words at a funeral. There are benefits of pondering our mortality. It may cause an improved diet, attention to exercise, and more time with people we love. It may cause us to examine our values and ensure that we are living in accord with those values. Talking about death helps us prepare emotionally or financially for the future.

Have you heard of the “death positivity movement”? Caitlin Doughty first used the term death positivity and a movement was formed. The following is a list of what the movement sees as important:

  1. By hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society. They aim to open up discussions of grief and death and believe that discussing the end of life can improve our choices and our mental health.
  2. The culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship.
  3. Talking about and engaging with death is not morbid, but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.
  4. The dead body is not dangerous, and everyone should be empowered (should they wish to be) to be involved in care for their own dead.
  5. The laws that govern death, dying and end-of-life care should ensure that a person’s wishes are honored, regardless of sexual, gender, racial or religious identity.
  6. Death should be handled in a way that does not do great harm to the environment.
  7. Our family and friends should know our end-of-life wishes, and that we should have the necessary paperwork to back-up those wishes.
  8. Open, honest advocacy around death can make a difference, and can change culture.

Participants of this movement create actual “death café” events in which people meet specifically for these purposes. At a Death Café people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. To date they’ve held 6605 Death Cafes in 56 countries. By talking about grief, others can feel a sense of togetherness and support. It is not just talking about a loss, but also about death, dying, corpses, and funerals. They want to eliminate the silence around death-related topics, decrease anxiety surrounding death, and encourage more diversity in end of life care options available to the public. These never involve agendas, advertising or set conclusions. For more information, see deathcafe.com.

In 2011, artist Candy Chang painted the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with the statement “Before I die I want to _________.” Within 24 hours, people had filled the wall with their wishes. Since then, more than 3,000 “Before I Die” walls have been created in more than 70 countries.

It doesn’t have to be morose, depressing or scary. Death acceptance can serve as a reminder to get busy living. “I’m not anticipating dying tomorrow or in the near future, but I do consider what will be important to me at the end of my life,” says Kortes-Miller. “Then I ask, ‘Why is it not important today?’”

So, I challenge you to finish the sentence: “Before I die ___________” and get to it.

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