(Please note that this post focuses on thinking ahead to the end of our lives. If you are ill or recently bereaved, you may find it difficult to read… but I hope not)

As you can see, I have a completely different topic for us to discuss today and at first it may not seem easy but actually it’s not so bad. I’m supporting the brilliant people behind the charity Marie Curie who are trying to get us thinking ahead to the end of our lives by flouting one of society’s last taboos and openly discussing death. They first got in touch with me back in November when they launched their ‘Planning For It’ campaign – you may have seen the ads on TV that talk about the different euphemisms that people use for dying. I think they launched it in November because families would soon be gathering together for Christmas so it would give them a chance to chat but even with that in mind, it didn’t feel like the right time for me. However it does now – and yes, you probably feel like pointing out that it’s January and Blue Monday falls next week but even so, I think we’re all in a reflective frame of mind.

You see death is hopefully quite a way off for us all yet which makes midlife a perfect time to plan for it. In a recent Marie Curie survey, 89% of people said they felt comfortable talking about their own death and 73% said we should all discuss it more openly. When they were asked why it wasn’t discussed more, they replied that they were afraid of distressing people or that people wouldn’t be interested. This of course led Marie Curie to wonder if it’s easier for people to practice talking about it online before raising the subject with family and friends – so I’m hoping that’s what we can do today.

I’ve been having a go at starting real life conversations about death in preparation for writing this post and I’ve watched almost everyone flinch, including my very close friend who works full time in our local hospice. Only my mum-in-law was open to chatting about it. And yet death is the one certainty we have in life (along with taxes, I know, my January tax bill is sitting darkly on my desk). Even Mr MC who is always up for an interesting conversation as long as it’s accompanied by cake or Guinness has been shirking this one, so I’m hoping you’ll be different.

Why should we be thinking ahead to the end of our lives?

If you’ve lost somebody close to you and been involved with the nitty gritty that surrounds the end of life, you’ll probably understand more than somebody who is, as yet, unscathed. I’ll never forget the horror of the undertaker arriving after my dad died. It was a hot Tuesday in August and my brothers, sister and I sat in our back garden with our mum, trying to plan the funeral.

We were already reeling from the difficult decisions that we’d had to make during his last few weeks with regard to his end of life care. Our heads were thick with grief and it felt impossible to think any more. All we knew was that he wanted to be cremated but other than that, we had no answers to the never ending questions about hymns, music, flowers, wording for the newspaper, who would carry the coffin, who would deliver a eulogy, who would travel in official cars and for me, the very worst bit, what to choose from the coffin catalogue. Five years later we found ourselves in the same situation all over again, this time in a bleak November landscape as we made plans for our mum.

I know for a fact that I don’t want my boys to have that heavy burden and I also know that I’d rather deal with all of this now – it must be much harder when you have a terminal diagnosis. Whenever the end of my life comes, I’d like us to be relatively well prepared so that we can spend whatever time we have left together just focusing on the good things. And then when our time runs out, I’d like there to be a plan that my family can simply put into action without having to think “but what would Mum want?” As Marie Curie put it “we believe in having these conversations now, to keep your loved ones in the know, saving them from unnecessary stress and confusion later.”

So where do we start with this?

Well fortunately all of the resources are on the Marie Curie website in the Talkabout section where you’ll find really interesting interviews and podcasts on all kinds of related topics. I should stress that this is not a sponsored post, I’m supporting them because I think they approach the end of life so well and all of the questions you need to find answers for are there to be dealt with. As I see it, they’ve organised it into three areas:

Practical issues

Finances, the will, funeral plans, life insurance etc

Care planning

This includes where you would like to end your days. Marie Curie discovered that when they change the question of “where would you like to die?” to “what kind of environment do you want at the end of your life?” a lot of people find that they don’t actually want to die at home.

Another important consideration is how much treatment you’d be willing to undergo if you were living with a terminal illness. Interestingly in the same survey, 90% of people said they wouldn’t want to live ‘at all costs’ – so we all need to think about the point when we’d stop treatment. I remember a conversation with my mum when she told me she felt she had to keep going with the endless rounds of chemo for as long as the doctors kept on offering it because she didn’t want to be seen to give up. The suffering wasn’t worth it but nobody in the medical profession gave her the permission she needed to stop.

Sharing your stories

What will you leave behind that’s intrinsically ‘you’? This focuses on memories and stories that you may not have shared yet that will live on in your family after you die. You may well be a carrier of family history too and it’s good to consider what ancestral tales need to live on.

The Marie Curie checklist

So to get the nitty gritty of dying over with, here’s a checklist that Marie Curie have put together to help you start thinking about the first two areas (practical and care – you can download it from the website here).

  • Make a Will
  • Choose someone to make decisions about your finances if you become unable to
  • Make decisions about your funeral
  • Arrange payment for your funeral
  • Arrange who will look after any children or dependents
  • Organise what will happen to any pets
  • Make a list of important documents (eg bank accounts, pension, insurance)
  • Leave messages or advice to your loved ones through letters or videos
  • Make decisions about what will happen to your online accounts
  • Choose someone to make decisions about your care if you become unable to
  • Make decisions about how and where you would prefer to be looked after
  • Make a bucket list of things you want to do before you die
  • Make decisions about organ and tissue donation
  • Get life insurance
  • Talk to your loved ones about these things

Once you start, it’s all quite straightforward to work through. When you’ve finished, collate all of the information into something called a ‘When I’m Gone‘ box and make sure the right people know where to find it.

Sharing the story of ‘you’

As I was doing this, I found it easier to concentrate on the practical and care sections first. However if you find it hard to go straight into the detail of dying, it might be easier to start with the softer side which really focuses on what makes you ‘you.’ The good thing about this is that it isn’t a one-sided conversation, everyone can join in and Marie Curie have made it into a game with a pack of playing cards as a prompt. They suggest playing rummy or snap with the cards but we haven’t quite worked out how to do that. Instead we’ve kept them on the dinner table and every so often we’ve picked out five. Everyone has a turn in giving their answers to the questions and of course you’ll get some daft ones from teens but it all helps to make it fun.

Thinking ahead to the end of our lives

You’ll find you have some really interesting conversations. Some are easy to answer so for example here are some of mine…

What is your most treasured memory?

The moments when I watched pregnancy tests turn to positive. I remember and treasure them all, even the ones that ended in miscarriage.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?

Jumping off a 7,000 ft mountain and paragliding down to the bottom.

A year after you’ve died, what would you like your friends and family to be saying about you?

“Well of course Nikki would say…” (I like to think I’ll be there as a voice in their heads).

There are some that I’ll have to come back to though. On my desk I currently have:

  • In a film about your life, who would you want to play you?
  • If your life could be summed up by a song, what would it be?
  • What’s the one place you’d really like to visit before you die?
  • Name three things you’d like to do before you die

… because they’re the ones I haven’t been able to answer. The cards are really good conversation starters and they’re free but of course you can make a donation to Marie Curie when you order them here. They come with a helpful ‘Talkabout’ booklet that includes the planning checklist too.

So, I’m going to leave you with a few last words from one of the humanists at Marie Curie who, when asked why we need to be open about death with our friends and family says:

“There is no benefit or positive outcome of the social taboo about death and dying. We are not protecting or shielding those we love by not discussing or preparing for our death. If they don’t know what to do and what we want when we die they will have to sort that out when they are worried, sad, anxious or grieving which doesn’t seem to be very kind or loving. They could be tormented or distressed trying to do the right thing by you when they are blind to your wishes and they have to sort arrangements out from scratch.”

Can we talk about it?

Marie Curie asked for my help in getting the conversation started so I’m hoping that you’ll respond in the comments section. Tell us what you’ve found hardest to deal with when someone you loved died. Or share a conversation you’ve had about the prospect of your own death – who was it easiest to talk to? Or tell us if it makes you feel uncomfortable and why. Let us know how this whole subject makes you feel or tell us something funny – I’ll never forget my aunt’s (my mum’s sister’s) funeral. Being a teacher, Mum was a stickler for spelling and my cousin had done the printing for the the order of service himself. As my siblings and I looked through it quietly before the service began we all spotted the last hymn, “praise my sole the king of heaven.” We exchanged glances, wondering how Mum would react when she saw it but luckily she saw the funny side and it certainly took the edge off a sad day when we were singing the hymn, praising that ‘sole’ repeatedly.

I’ll leave you with that. Please do support Marie Curie simply by joining the conversation in the comments, even if it’s just to say you’ll order the cards. I’m not going to post on Friday because I want to dedicate my blogging hours to replying to what you have to say so that we’re having a timely chat. I always think that living life with the conscious awareness that there is an end point stops us from being complacent. Marie Curie are trying to help us move away from being a death denying society so let’s be a part of it.

Disclosure: ‘Thinking ahead to the end of our lives’ is not a sponsored post. Please support the work that Marie Curie do by joining the conversation.

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