Feature

Dying to talk

Death is something many people push aside and try to forget about.
Photo: Bella Kitchen.

Death. It’s our inevitable future, whether it happens in 20 years, 20 days, even in the next 20 seconds, nobody knows.

While most people generally experience some level of discomfort or anxiety when contemplating human mortality, thanatophobia is an extreme or abnormal fear of death when people find it hard to grasp this reality.

Conversations around death are viewed by some as taboo of being morbid and depressing. But many experts believe creating these conversations with loved ones and family members can ease this discomfort and even help in the process of grieving.

So, why are we so afraid of death?

Well, no-one actually knows what happens after we die.

There is an abundance of beliefs and theories around death in the different cultures of the world.

Without certainty, many people feel uncomfortable speaking about death and would rather push it aside.

The people you’re about to meet all deal with death on most days. Here they share why we need to start talking and planning when it comes to dying.  

Coffee, cake and coffins

When you first hear the concept of death cafes it is hard not to picture the Addams’ Family serving people cups of coffee…

But death cafes are actually organised meet ups where people can openly discuss all things death and dying.

Death Cafes were founded in 2011 by Jon Underwood, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz.

Dr Margaret Sealey and nursing lecturer Dr Ruth Wei began hosting death cafes at Murdoch University’s Perth campus to foster conversations about end of life matters.

Dr Sealey said many people are not aware of the preparation and options around death, specifically in palliative care. They hope by people coming along to these meet ups it will help make the topic more approachable.

Attendees can choose to be anonymous and any conversation about death is welcome.

It is described as a comforting, confronting and liberating experience and one thing for sure is that people will walk away with a lot more awareness about death and dying.

Get an insight of what attending a death café looks like for an attendee and learn more about them from Dr Sealey below.

Death Cafes breathe life into conversations about dying. Video: Bella Kitchen.
You’re in good hands

People love to plan their birthdays, weddings and other momentous occasions but rarely do they dream of the day they get to plan their funeral.

Funeral directors and monument makers offer support to people in the hardest moments.

Losing someone is never easy but the people behind these businesses ensure they are there to lighten the load and make the difficult process a little less daunting.

Much like the other occasions we commonly celebrate, death becomes an opportunity to celebrate a life that has been lived.  

William Barrett and Sons funeral director Adrian Barrett said he loves sharing what he does for his job as it spreads awareness of making the conversations around death, dying, funerals, farewells and grief more normalised.

“As much as what we do is private and behind closed doors, purely the purpose is caring for someone else’s loved one and then caring for the family,” he said.

“We should be talking about these things … I see every day the people who have planned and communicated what they wanted, and it makes that inevitable time that much easier.”

Funeral director Adrian Barrett reminisces on growing up with a Dad as a funeral director. Video: Bella Kitchen.

Hancock Memorials’ manager Lisa Miles said creating a memorial gives people the opportunity to give back to their loved one and a way to remember them.

“Memorials are very personalised, there are no two that are exactly the same,” she said.

“It can be a difficult experience as often it is the last thing people do for their loved one, after it is done and they have that place to go, many people feel a release.”

Hancock Memorials is owned and operated by the Bovell family in Bunbury. Photos: Bella Kitchen.

Ms Miles said preparation and communication are important keys to getting what we want after death.

“It is part of life, a lot of us don’t want to think about it but if we prepare it helps it not be as difficult for our loved ones,” she said.

A key element to memorials is they can be completely individual. Ms Miles said it doesn’t have to fit a formula and as long as it fits the by-laws of a cemetery you can do whatever you like.

As technology advances people are finding more ways to remember people. Ms Miles said she has seen QR codes on monuments where people can scan and open websites with all kinds of mementoes.

Hancock Memorials’ manager Lisa Miles talks about a monument with a QR code on it. Photo: Bella Kitchen.

Lessons of living

Managing director and counsellor of the South West Grief and Loss Centre, Leanne O’Shea and spends her days talking through grief and loss with people.

She started the centre to build a stronger community connection and encourage conversations around death and grieving.

Death literacy is something Ms O’Shea helps promote in the community. The centre runs workshops, personal counselling, end of life consulting, retreats, youth camps, day and night respite and many other services.

Ms O’Shea said grief is the natural response to loss, is in everyone’s story and is something we all need to acknowledge, even when it’s difficult.

Ms O’Shea said the story of people crossing the street to avoid someone who is grieving because they don’t know what to say is quite common.

“The best thing people can do in death is listen, you don’t have to fix anything, but people should just be there with the true intention to listen,” she said.

“These are valuable conversations and something we should not cross the street over. We should be normalising these conversations around death and not making them uncomfortable in the first place.”

Counsellor Leanne O’Shea operates the South West Grief and Loss Centre and helps people understand their grief. Video: Bella Kitchen.

Bailey Pitts has looked death in the eye and knows better than most how precious life is.

You wouldn’t know from first sitting down with Bailey the mental struggle he has battled in the past year.

Bubbly with a soft smile, he seems like one of those people who, minutes after meeting him, you feel you’ve been friends for years.

In 2019, Bailey tried to end his life. 

Listen to what Bailey has to say about his journey. Video:Bella Kitchen.

With the endless support from his family and psychologist, correct medication and trying different things. Bailey trusted the process to find what worked for him.

“It was a whole journey, but if you keep believing in yourself and backing yourself, it is a slow journey, but you will get there,” he said.

His biggest piece of advice to anyone is to speak out and check in on people, he said that true courage is talking about things and knowing it is OK, to not be OK.

Bailey’s story is important as, much like death, it shows another thing in life that society often covers in taboos.

The grim statistics of mental health are becoming more visible and with suicide the 13th leading cause of death in Australia, people are starting to take them more seriously.

Bailey’s journey is unique to himself but elements of it are quite common. Bailey is the first to say he is glad he is alive to experience all life’s wonders and vowed to himself that he would to be able and available to help anyone who needed it.

“I feel very different about life now, there are still some sad times but now I am a lot more focused on the positive things and not so much the negatives,” he said.

Conversations around death are important to discuss with family and loved ones. Photos:Bella Kitchen.

Children can offer the most raw and truthful answers to questions adults spend years debating answers to internally. Let’s find out what two kids have to say about death.

Please enjoy a playlist of songs commonly used at funerals or simply reiterating the message of celebrating life.