We need to talk about death: it’s a fact of life

The exterior of Brian House
The exterior of Brian House
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Dying. Not a topic most of us choose to talk about, mainly because it’s so damn depressing.

No one wants to lose a wife or a husband, child or a friend, or even someone they don’t like.

Death is the ultimate, the end, finito. It’s scary – which is why we, the stiff upper lipped Brits, are not very good at having a natter about it.

But according to some experts on the Fylde coast, not opening up and having these conversations is a problem.

As macabre as it may sound, they want us to start using the D-word more.

“Death is a fact of life,” says Dr Susan Salt, “and it is actually a natural end to each of our lives.

“Surely, just as we don’t have a problem about planning for the arrival of a new life into this world, why on earth would we avoiding the reality of death and having plans for death.

“It seems to me to be just logical to talk about death.”

Confused? A little disturbed? Me too, but a trip to the De Vere Village Hotel in Stanley Park today is likely to make things clearer.

There a conference called Dying Matters is taking place, when a number of speakers will talk about why being more open about death is a positive thing.

One of those speaking is Dr Salt, whose day job is medical director at Trinity Hospice.

She invited me to talk to her ahead of the conference about, well, death, and my first question was – isn’t this all a bit weird? I mean, after all, who really wants to talk about dying?

“I understand that. I know it isn’t an easy topic and some people will think it’s odd,” she says.

“But every single one of us is going to die at some point.

“We all hope it is a long way away but it isn’t for everybody. And if we don’t talk about it then we can’t plan for it – and if we don’t plan for it then our dying wishes may never be heard, or talked about too late.”

In her role at Trinity, Dr Salt deals with gravely ill patients every day and sees the effect it has on not only the individuals involved but their families too.

And she is a firm believer in being open about what is going on.

“I suspect – and this is based on where I work and what I do – that people do want to talk about dying,” she said.

“But often they don’t talk because they are fearful they will upset the relative they are talking to, or that the relative they’re talking to won’t take them seriously or will assume they’re giving in.

“But actually lots of people, if they are allowed to talk about it, can say what they need to say, and then never say it again because it’s all done – and they carry on living.”

The problem begins, says Dr Salt, with being uncomfortable with the word itself.

“The words death and dying … for a lot of people they are almost as bad as the word cancer because they are terrifying and so full of meaning,” she argues.

“So just getting people to talk about death and dying is really difficult.

“People say he’s passed away, he’s gone to sleep, he’s no longer with us … all these euphemisms to avoid the word death.

“One of my passions is to say - let’s just use these words and be honest about them. I think that’s a good starting point.”

This isn’t exactly an uplifting conversation but what Dr Salt says does make sense.

It is about making sure the patient, or his or her relatives, have done everything they need to, and said everything they need to, before it is too late.

And Dr Salt is a firm believer that being more open and less scared to talk about the end, does, in general, help everyone involved.

“Most images of death come from films or television or books and in all those places people often have these very profound last words that they say, then they die,” she says.

“Unfortunately dying isn’t like that for most of us.

“It is about a person slowly deteriorating and becoming more and more frail, getting weaker, sleeping more – and often they haven’t got the energy to say even a little word, let alone something more profound.

“So if there is something important to be said – whether it’s ‘I appreciate everything you’ve done for me’ or even ‘I hate your guts’ – there needs to be an opportunity for that to be said.

“If you don’t do that soon enough you may never get to do it – because of course once someone has died there is no way back.”

You may have stopped reading this article long ago, you may have lasted this far but disagree with every word, or maybe you’ve been nodding your head along in agreement.

That’s because, as Dr Salt, it is a divisive topic, a topic which automatically makes people uncomfortable and one which everyone will have a different reaction to.

But, if nothing else, it is thought-provoking and an interesting argument – for it’s a surefire bet that anyone who has lost a loved one has regrets about something they didn’t say or do.

Dr Salt is one of several speakers at today’s conference, which will also feature fellow medics, members of the public who have lost family members, a solicitor (to talk about the importance of being clear about your wishes after death), and a funeral director.

There are also more than 30 stalls, with representatives from organisations such as Age Concern to Dementia UK.