We need to talk about dying and death

CoupleWe all die one day, whether we like it or not. So why do so many of us act as if we won’t? Dying Matters wants more people to talk about it.

Medical breakthroughs and public health improvements have greatly increased life expectancy. And, more importantly, other medical and technical developments have enabled many people to remain active for longer, giving them a better quality of life, as well as a longer life.

But we all die in the end, whether we like it or not. So why do so many of us act as if we won’t?

Only about a third of British adults have made a will, and a slightly smaller number have made funeral plans. And that’s the good news: fewer people have made a decision about organ donation, and very few people have made plans for the sort of care they’d like to receive if they are no longer able to decide for themselves.

The Dying Matters coalition was created in 2008, after the government felt that a reluctance to talk about dying, death and bereavement was preventing people from putting their end of life plans in place. The National Council for Palliative Care has been leading the coalition since its creation and organising the annual Dying Matters Awareness Week since 2009.

This year’s awareness week runs from 8 to 14 May, and the theme is ‘What can you do?’ If you haven’t made any end of life plans, it can be a bit daunting: you’ve got to think about wills, funerals, organ donations, lasting powers of attorney, advance care plans… where do you start? It’s too easy to look at this and give up with a ‘what can you do?’ shrug.

But we want to challenge people. You can’t escape death, but you can get your plans in place. Once you’ve done this, it will be a relief to you and to your loved ones. We’ve all heard horror stories about disputes over property when there wasn’t a will, or arguments about what someone would have wanted for their funeral. Making plans and writing them down will avoid this.

You can only be sure you’ll get the care you want, and don’t receive any treatment you don’t want, if you make a plan and write it down. Sadly, some people who opt to be organ donors do not donate after they die, as the family blocks it, because they are unaware of their loved one’s wish.

Talking about death is important, followed by making plans and then sharing them. This has been the theme of Dying Matters since 2009, and it remains at the core of our work. But change is coming.

Demographics mean that the number of annual deaths in Britain is going to rise steadily over the next 15 years, having been declining for years. Many people would choose to die at home, in a place that’s familiar and friendly. As the government agrees that people’s wishes should be respected, this means many more ending their days at home, rather than in hospital, where currently about half of all deaths happen.

We know that health and social care finances are tight, so how is this going to be done? It’s going to need all of us to help. We’re used to helping our families deal with illness, death and bereavement, but increasingly, we are going to have to help our friends and communities as well. What we do will depend on our relationships and what we can offer. But it could be as simple as walking a neighbour’s dog, giving someone a lift, or cooking a meal. Whether someone is dying or grieving for a loved one, we can all help.

About the author

Dying Matters is a coalition of members across England and Wales which aims to help people to talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life.