Why we need to talk about death

Losing a loved one is difficult, and particularly more so during the challenges of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Here Helen French, Interim Head of Counselling at City Hospice, explains why it is important to be open about death.

If we can’t talk about death and dying now, then when can we?

As we approach the anniversary of the first lockdown restrictions coming into effect in the UK, many families will be reflecting on how their lives have changed completely in the space of a year and sadly, in many cases, remembering those they have lost.

Everybody will experience the loss of a loved one during their life but however natural and inevitable this process, talking about death and its emotional impact still feels taboo. With many families being affected directly and indirectly by the pandemic, there has never been a more important time to break down the barriers that prevent us talking about this subject.

Talking about death and dying is often thought of as too difficult, with many people shying away from it in fear of a release of uncomfortable emotion. Overcoming this obstacle can bring a wealth of support before and after a death.

The pandemic has left many families not knowing the wishes of their loved one because they had not had a conversation with them. It can be difficult to broach the subject, afraid of hurting a loved one’s feelings by saying or doing the wrong thing but starting conversations about death earlier will help the person that is dying to know their thoughts and feelings are heard and allows everyone to have honest and open discussions of their wishes and fears.

At City Hospice, a routine home visit from one of our nurses can spark a conversation within a family around short- and long-term plans. Talking to a counsellor, who is a total stranger, about their loved one can also help prepare for future conversations about possible treatment options, where a person would prefer to die and their wishes following their death. These conversations can be of comfort to families, empowering them to ask questions and knowing that they can carry out their loved one’s final wishes when the time comes.

It is vitally important to keep talking following the loss of a loved one too, particularly in challenging times like these where normal mourning routines have been put on hold. With numbers of mourners being limited at funerals and no wakes, grief is often manifesting and building until a time when we can come together with family and friends again.

Being able to talk openly now, rather than waiting for an indeterminate length of time, can help to reduce feelings of isolation and let those grieving know that they’re not alone in coming to terms with their loss.

We are starting to see signs of people choosing to break the taboo of talking about death and seek support. During the pandemic, we have seen more and more people access counselling and bereavement support to help them cope with the emotional impact and to process their feelings.

Counselling can offer a safe, supportive and confidential space to share and lessens some of the anxieties of discussing grief as people do not have to self-edit or look after a family member or friend in these sessions, allowing them to express issues freely that may not have felt comfortable doing otherwise.

We know the difference talking to a counsellor can make, particularly at a sad and difficult time, and have recently extended our services to support the bereaved in Bridgend and parts of Rhondda Cynon Taf in addition to Cardiff.

We hear time and time again by those we have supported of the positive impact counselling has had on them and how it has helped them to cope with problems and issues stemming from grief.

A recent survey carried out over six months has showed that 82% of those we supported strongly agreed that the counsellor helped them with the issue that brought them to seek counselling with a further 16% agreeing. 87% strongly agreed they were given the opportunity to discuss their concerns, with an additional 13% agreeing.

We know that talking about death and dying is hard, and often families want to protect each other from the hurt and sadness that it may bring. Whether it’s talking with a relative, friend or counsellor, it’s important that we keep breaking down the barriers so that these conversations eventually become the norm.

City Hospice is Cardiff’s local hospice, the only provider of home-based specialist palliative care in the capital. In addition to caring for 550 patients at any one time, the charity also supports families through counselling and bereavement support services. For free bereavement support, email [email protected] or call 02920 524158 (Cardiff), 02922 671422 (Bridgend and parts of Rhondda Cynon Taf).