We need to talk about death and bereavement
Steve Jobs said “we are all going to die sometime but the trouble is we don’t know when”
It is not easy to talk about dying. Death is hidden away, and it can be incredibly difficult to imagine ourselves or our loved ones not being in the world any more. However death is an inevitable consequence of being alive.
Our lives are filled with emotions, from joy to pain, happiness to sadness, new beginnings and painful loss, and having a conversation about death means we need to face the painful emotions that many avoid.
Why don’t we talk about death?
We know that every human being will face death, yet for many, talking about death is a taboo subject, and one that most people find difficult to deal with. What do you say? How do you say it?
From my work, I highlight some of the key reasons people don’t talk about death…
Awkwardness, embarrassment and fear is one of the main reasons people don’t talk about death. It is incredibly difficult to imagine ourselves and the ones we love not being in the world anymore. People don’t know what to say to those who have lost a loved one and they often don’t know what to say about their own end of life, so it’s easier to say nothing.
We have an obsession to be happy and live life to the full, entire bookcases are dedicated to how to live a happier and fuller life. By talking about death, we face how we are living, and for many this is a challenging process as we question whether we are living a good life. Many may feel an unreadiness to discuss death if they are not satisfied with how they are living.
Life is busy and there is often so much to think about and juggle in our everyday lives, finding time to think and talk about death is at the bottom of the pile.
By not talking about death, we are not planning for death. When I talk to people about why they don’t talk about death their responses are often “it’s too much to think about” or “I can’t plan my life at the moment let alone think about death and dying” or “it’s too painful, I just can’t think about that today” or “let’s talk about it another time when I’m not so busy”.
Don’t know how to start the conversation
Many people just don’t know how to start the conversation around death, as it leads to discussing worries and concerns and may upset family and friends.
‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’
Benjamin Franklin, 1789.
Not talking about death brings the following challenges:
- However near or far our death is, it is inevitable one day. By not talking about death, we are not planning for death, which means those near to us will not know what our end of life wishes are. Talking practical options around will writing, where you would like to be cared, or any money worries that need assistance with, who would care for dependents – all important discussions.
- Not talking about death can lead to isolation and depression. Talking about death and the person who has died can help people feel less alone and disconnected from others, and is an important part of accepting death and the grief surrounding it.
- Not talking or planning for death means we are not empowered, leaving others to make decisions on our behalf. This is often upsetting for those involved and may not reflect our own wishes.
I am often called in to organisations to advise on death and compassion and ensure that the appropriate leave and rehabilitation for back to work is offered.
The death of a loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a leader, a mentor – all have huge impact on the workplace, and dealing with death and helping the bereaved is of huge importance.
COVID-19 has brought with it increased worries about death, a heightened anxiety not just about dying, but also about living (worries about finances for example). For those who have lost loved ones, COVID brings specific challenges and implications for the bereaved. Close friends or family may not be able to attend the funeral, which in turn will have an impact on their grief and how they manage that.
Talk, engage and listen
This is one of the most crucial interactions you will have with your people, and how you handle their grief (or not handle their grief) will be remembered. Everyone is different, so it will not be a one size fits all approach – you need to understand the person involved, their relationship with the deceased and how it may impact their lives (not just from a work perspective) and offer support accordingly.
People who have lost loved ones feel a huge amount of pain and there is no given ‘end date’ to when this grief will stop and when the person should go back to feeling ‘normal’ again. The loneliness and pain can last months, years and even a lifetime. Grief is not linear.
As an employer, it is your responsibility to have a bereavement policy, but many people are not aware of what that is. Make sure your police is up to date and reflective of the world we are in and your business ethos. Educate your managers and leaders and ensure that they know what their responsibilities are surrounding it. The Bereavement Policy will set out the standards, but it’s important also to have empathy and flexibility to work around the individual’s circumstances.
Your employees are entitled to bereavement leave from work when a loved one dies. However, for many, legally there is no set amount of leave given. This changed in April 2020 when a new law was introduced to allow for 2 weeks paid bereavement leave for those who lose a child – called Jack’s Law. For others, the average bereavement leave is between 3-5 days – but is that enough time for someone who has lost a dear loved one? Losing a loved one can have an impact on how they can carry out their work both emotionally and practically, and flexible bereavement leave and ongoing support will be paramount.
Planning for the inevitable
Why don’t we prepare for the inevitable, as we do for all other life stages?
When we go on holiday we plan where we are going, what to pack in our bags. We make sure our passport is up to date, our tickets are booked and in our bags, and we’ve organised for someone to look after our pets.
We cannot stop being mortal. But we can take more ownership over our mortality by planning for death or assist in the planning with others, for example:
- Insurance policies such as critical illness, life insurance, key man – what they are and their importance
- Will writing and knowing where to find it
- End of life care
- Funeral planning and logistics
- Power of attorney should we develop a condition where we cannot take control over our affairs
- Important login’s such as bank accounts, financial affairs and social media
- Leaving a legacy – not just financial – think about life lessons, hopes and dreams and favourite photos
- Business arrangements – how would the business continue?
- Communication with family and friends
- Tell Us Once
One of my clients, an HR Director, asked to be referred to a contact of mine who is an expert in death and dying. They wanted to learn more about the services offered.
The HR Director had the experience of her mother dying and her father had no idea of her wishes with regard to her affairs or where her confidential papers were stored after her death.
Once my client had spoken to the expert, they had no hesitation in asking the expert back to meet online with a focus group within their business, so that their people could hear how best to plan their affairs before they died. The audience were young people with ages ranging from in their 30’s to 50’s.
The outcome was astounding. After the initial apprehension of attending a meeting about death and after the HR Director told her story, the reaction was encouraging, with participants asking “tell me more, I want to have a plan”.
As a result of this positive outcome, workshops were set up for anyone in the business who wished to develop their plan for when they die.
This was a company that truly cared about their people, and wanted to raise the uncomfortable discussion of death in a compassionate and productive way in order to empower their people and enable them to speak more openly about death and bereavement.
If you would like to set up a workshop or hear more about how I can help, please contact me to discuss further.
Please get in touch if I can help you or your team…
Tel: +44 (0)333 900 9280