How are you doing?
While the world seems precarious and mortality feels closer than ever, the simple question of “How are you doing?”, can feel loaded. The answer to that question might be, “Where do I begin?”
COVID-19 has us all thinking about the same thing: death.
Death in numbers, death in its potential, death as a threat. Death as something that has crept into the back of our minds and has taken up residence.
For many of us, even those who are accustomed to talking about death or consider themselves death positive, the topic of death might suddenly feel taboo. Too real. Too grim.
There’s a temptation to indulge in death phobia and death denial. With fear and uncertainty at a fever pitch, it’s absolutely understandable that people would want to soothe themselves by pretending death isn’t real for them.
However, we’ve seen over and over again that long term, lasting peace of mind comes from talking about death, voicing one’s concerns, and making plans for end of life – whether it’s yours or your loved one’s.
You may say to yourself, “When my friends and family are already scared and anxious, should I really be bringing up burials and funerals? Aren’t I going to scare them?”
You might, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
So to help you navigate death talk in the time of COVID-19, here are a few questions you may be asking yourself and some advice on how to handle them.
Is it OK to talk about death with my friends and family right now?
Yes! It is absolutely OK to talk with your friends and family about death right now.
Whether people realize it or not, death and mortality are fueling a lot of our behaviors – hoarding, lashing out, denial– and creating a lot of stress. Talking about death with the people you care about could be a very positive thing.
HOWEVER they have to be on board with it. Read the room. Choose your moment. Maybe don’t bring up ALL THE DEATH STUFF when your roommate has a pollen-induced coughing fit.
Getting people to talk about death is not always easy, especially during a pandemic. But unless they are open to the conversation, you coming at them with DEATH FACTS! might just shut them down.
These are fraught times, it’s important to recognize the mental calisthenics many people are having to endure just to keep their households running. Considering how to broach the death conversation is also a good time to check your privilege – your death concerns may not be the same as your loved one’s death concerns.
If your friends and family are open to talking about death, guide them, but let them drive the conversation. As someone who supports the death positive movement, you’re probably used to discussing death in ways that a lot of people are not. Right now, your loved ones may just need to voice their death fears – they might not be ready for your TED Talk on direct cremation.
Here are some questions to help make your loved ones feel more comfortable about opening up:
- “Things are bizarre right now. I’ve personally been feeling a little anxious about death and mortality lately. How are you hanging in there?
- “I’m always here for you if you want to talk about any anxieties you might have about death, illness, mortality, whatever – reach out whenever you want.”
- “With all the information that’s being posted about COVID-19 and death lately, it’s hard to process it all, and it’s kind of scary. I know this isn’t the most FUN topic, but can we have a conversation about mortality?”
- “I know what’s happening in the world is probably bringing up a lot of things about death that are not easy to think about. Could we talk about it?”
And perhaps the most important thing you can say to your loved ones when talking about death:
- “When you’re ready to stop talking about this today, just let me know and we’ll change the subject or do something else.”
Death – if you’ve never really talked about it before – is a lot to process. Don’t short circuit someone’s brain the first time around!
It’s all about empowering your loved ones to feel like they have some control over the death conversation in a world that feels very much out of control. Empower them to ask questions but also to set boundaries. As counterintuitive as it may seem, feeling confident in the boundaries they set is key to pushing those boundaries (when they’re ready).
If your loved ones have a positive experience talking about death with you, one that is honest and affirming, they may very likely want to continue the conversation later.
Here are some Ask a Mortician videos that can get the conversation started too:
“Overcoming Death Denial in Your Family”
I consider myself death positive, but I’m feeling very anxious and afraid of death right now. I feel like I’m failing at death positivity – what can I do?
Congratulations warrior in the death positive movement! If you’re thinking, “I’m feeling very afraid of death right now” that is completely OK and healthy.
You get a cookie.
Say it with us: There is nothing wrong with being afraid of death.
OK, we don’t want you to be afraid of death, but the fact that you have the wherewithal to acknowledge your fears means that you are being pretty darn death positive. Being afraid or anxious doesn’t make you any less death positive and it doesn’t make you any less capable of helping others. In fact, it may make you a more approachable or compassionate helper or advocate.
Being death “positive” doesn’t mean you always have to be cheerful about death or say positive things. The death positive movement is about discussing death whether it’s good, bad, ugly, or something in-between.
And remember, there is a distinct difference between FEAR of death and death PHOBIA. If you’re here, reading these words, you’re obviously engaging with your fears and working with them, rather than being avoidant. Huzzah!
We are all on a different death positive journey. We all have different backgrounds and experiences related to death, so OF COURSE we are all going to engage with death positivity differently. You might engage with the death conversation because of your fear or anxiety about mortality – if that’s you, you’re not alone! TRUST US.
Whatever gets you talking about death is valid and reasonable and we’re happy you’re here.
Here’s an article Caitlin wrote called “What Death Positive is Not”, in it she touches on how it’s A-OK to be afraid of death.
Here are more resources on approaching your fear of death.
How can I make my loved ones less afraid of death?
Short answer? You can’t.
Spoiler: death is scary.
Just like you can never make someone like tapioca pudding or make someone like Game of Thrones, fear of death is something that someone has to contend with on their own and on their own terms. (It took me years to come around to tapioca pudding. It took nibble after nibble to develop a taste for it. I can only stomach Game of Thrones in small bites. For some people, “nibbling” is how they approach death positivity).
What you can do is open up the conversation with your loved ones about death and death fears. You can be a sensitive, compassionate person to talk with about death; you can help them to voice their fears and in doing so, maybe diminish them.
Sometimes just being able to say out loud, “I am afraid of death because…” can relieve some fear. It’s like a releasing a pressure valve.
In these times when we are so unsure about public health and resources, you may not be able to assuage your loved ones death fears. Mortality fears, health fears, financial fears – ALL THE FEARS – are coming at them from every angle! But you can let them know that they are not alone, and that their fears are valid and rational and that death fears don’t make them weak or less capable.
Is this a good time to talk with my loved ones about Advance Directives?
Yes. But like talking about death in these tense times, you have to be willing to meet people halfway.
If you’ve been able to start the death positive conversation with your loved ones, bringing up a living will or Health Care Proxy might be a next step.
You could also bring it up by mentioning your own Advance Directive or death plans:
- “With everything that’s going on, I looked over my living will the other day. I know it can seem morbid, but it really gave me peace of mind. Again, not trying to be grim, but if you’re interested in putting together your will, I’m here if you need me.”
- “I know things are bonkers right now, but I’ve been updating my Advance Directive documents, and I trust you with my life…and end of life. Would you be willing to be my Health Care Proxy? I’d be happy to talk about what that means with you.”
- “It was so much easier than I thought it would be to make my living will! I actually found it really comforting. Do you think that’s something you’d want to think about? We can do it together if you want?”
Maybe the person you’re talking to doesn’t want you directly involved with their Advance Directive. Instead, you could share with them some resources so that they can look things over on their own time, in their own space.
You could write them a message, with links to resources, that says something like, “Hey! These are those living will/Advance Directive resources I was talking about. SO MUCH less complicated than I expected. Take a look if you want!”
Here are some death plan and Advance Directive resources you can share:
Links and guidance on who and what you’ll need to plan for your end of life and funeral.
In collaboration with Cake, we’ve created a page with all the forms you’ll need to complete your Advance Directive — for each US state.
Approaching end of life plans for trans and non-binary people.
Lastly, take care of yourself.
Like the airplanes say, fasten your own oxygen mask before you assist others.
While we have a duty to look for those of us in our community right now – it’s the only way we will get through this crisis – don’t feel like you have to sacrifice your mental health being other people’s death positive midwife.
Even the most death positive among us are not immune to the stresses that abound right now. There’s a lot of death on our plates. It’s 100 percent alright if you need to step back for a bit.
Check in with yourself often. If talking about the death fears of others today is exacerbating your own death anxieties too much, don’t do it. Wait until you feel equipped to put yourself out there.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by responsibility or uncertainty – take “talking to Craig about death” off your list that day. Talk to Craig tomorrow or the next. He’ll be fine.
Or maybe you choose not to have that conversation. There are other ways to engage with death! Choose the way that best suits your talents and bandwidth. Maybe you create death art, maybe you write death poetry, maybe others find these pursuits helpful too? Include them in how you do death positivity.
So take care of yourselves and take care of each other. If you need to take a break to look at baby otter pictures, please do so. May I recommend this one:
Louise Hung is the producer & co-writer for “Ask a Mortician”. Along with writing and researching for the Order, you may remember her words from HuffPost, Time, xoJane, or your local NYC lit reading. Follow her on Twitter.
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