*** Time for this post? Reading…3 minutes. Viewing…8 minutes. Figuring it out…I don’t know. What do you think?
Decluttering weighs heavy on many minds—and a lot of us get stuck there. In spite of the good advice from organizing experts like Marie Kondo and Margareta Magnusson.
There’s a lot of decision-making involved in clutter clearing—first in determining what stays and what goes; then in working out how and where to store what remains. It can be overwhelming. It often is.
Laura Moore is a home organization coach and move manager who comes at her work from an emotional-behavioural perspective. She says clutter clearing is not about the stuff, it’s about you. And she has insightful ways of helping people get past what’s stopping them. She says she’s sometimes called a “clutter therapist” because her clients “feel better soon, even with a lot of work ahead of them when organizing, right-sizing (downsizing) or moving.”
If you’re having to force yourself to do the job, you are not ready. In that case, the first thing to do is figure out how you can do it to feel relatively good. Aim for ease and enjoyment.
Putter through your clutter. That’s much more effective than attacking it.
Be realistic in your expectations about how much you can do in an hour. Remember to include prep time and cleanup time when planning to declutter.
When you don’t know what to do…
Remember that you don’t know what to do…yet. And you can figure it out.
Pay attention to your feelings.
Figure it out.
More from Laura Moore…
Her YouTube channel has many short segments you might find helpful if you’re grappling with the decisions that decluttering requires. Here are a few samples…
*** Time for this post? Reading…7 minutes. Viewing…10 minutes. Thinking about letting go…who knows?
Living as we do in a culture of excess, the concept of clutter clearing is familiar to most North Americans. The first time I really thought about it was when I read Karen Kingston‘s little book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui in 1999. Feng Shui, a traditional Chinese concept, deals with energy. According to the description on amazon,
Kingston reminds us that clutter is stuck energy that keeps you stuck in undesirable life patterns. Therefore, you can “sort out your life by sorting out your junk.” Kingston covers the reasons we keep things as well as the amazing stories of people who have cleared their clutter away.
In the years since it was published, there have been many more books about clutter clearing.
The cover states it’s an international bestseller, and that’s not surprising. Aging adults are contemplating how to leave this planet gracefully. And their adult children are wondering how to tactfully encourage their parents to clean up their mess before they depart.
[tweetshare tweet=”Don’t collect things you don’t want. Someone will have to take care of it some day. ~ Margareta Magnusson” username=”LauranaRayne”]
The book is peppered with Margareta’s charmingly sensible Swedish philosophy and family stories. These combine to make interesting and motivating reading as we take on the age-old problem of cleaning up after ourselves. As you would expect, she shares advice about how to get started, some of the systems that can help you get things out of the house, and ways to better organize what you’re keeping.
“Death cleaning is not a sad thing,” says Magnusson. “I want it to be joyful and interesting. It can be that. And people should start early. If your things are in order, then you don’t have to waste time looking for them.”
Who is Margareta Magnusson?
She’s an accomplished artist, mother of five and grandmother of eight, who gained much life experience through seventeen moves within Sweden and abroad. I find her realistic, thoughtful, and down-to-earth. See for yourself in her short video about döstädning (death cleaning).
Margareta Magnusson is “between 80 and 100,” and the value I found in her book is that she talks about issues unique to being in the late stage of life.
If you don’t read anything else, look at the section called “How to discuss the topic of death cleaning.” This is equally valuable for aging adults and adult children. As she points out, children are in a tough spot because they see the amount their parents have accumulated and know that dealing with it is going to fall to them if their parents don’t look after it while they can.
Suggestions for adult children…
She offers sensible advice to adult children, including sample questions to get the conversation going in a gentle way.
You have so many nice things, have you thought about what you want to do with it all later on?
Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of the stuff that you have collected over the years?
Is there anything we can do together in a slow way so that there won’t be too many things to handle later?
My only quibble is her choice of words. “Stuff” and “get rid of” carry a judgmental tone and could be off-putting to the owner of those things. It may be a cultural thing. It may just be a translation choice if the book was written in Swedish. But I think the questions are sound, and the language can easily be adjusted.
She goes on to say…
Old people often have a problem with their balance. Rugs, stacks of books on the floor, and all items lying about the house can be safety hazards. Perhaps this can be a way to start your discussion: Ask about the rugs. Are they really safe?
Perhaps this is where tact is still important, to ask these questions in as gentle and caring a way as you can.
It is possible that the first few times you ask, your parents may want to avoid the topic, Or change the subject. But it is important to open the discussion. If you were unable to get them to talk with you, then leave them to think and return a few weeks or a few months later and ask again, perhaps in a slightly different way.
There are many aspects to taking responsibility for our possessions and cleaning up our space. Marie Kondo (see last week’s post) teaches us how to decide what to keep by testing each item to see if it sparks joy in us. For items that don’t, we are advised to thank them and let them go.
What she doesn’t address is the difficulty of letting go. Some objects have emotional hooks in them, and these prevent us from letting them go even when we know there’s no joy in having them. Who doesn’t have at least a few things we don’t want to use but can’t get them out of the house?
The experience of Swedish death cleaning…
The main question to help you let go of things…
Will anyone be happier if I save it?
Emotional hooks keep us from dealing with some objects, so they get tucked out of sight and ignored.
Find those out-of-sight items.
Identify what’s holding you back from letting them go.
Take appropriate action.
I think Margareta Magnusson would say, “Do something!” I agree.
But hers is not the only approach that’s helpful to elders cleaning up after themselves. Next week: Laura Moore on what NOT to do when decluttering or downsizing.
***Time for this post? Reading…8 minutes. Viewing…2 minutes. Sifting and sorting…as much as you want to.
Last week I wrote about knowing when enough is enough. That post was about medical treatments at the end of life. However, the concept of “enough” also applies to our possessions, and that’s what I’m addressing today.
In either case, determining what is enough—and what is excess—challenges us to think about our values, what’s important to us, what we cherish.
What if, instead of focusing on what we will get rid of, we look for the treasures in what we have. The point is to keep the treasures and move the rest along in appropriate ways. …Another time we’ll talk about approaches and logistics for lightening your load of excess things.
Well…now is that time!
Curating my surroundings has been high on my mind recently. It started when I had to clear everything except six large pieces of furniture out of my living room and dining room so the ceiling and two walls could be repainted. Because the picture hooks were removed and filled in, I started thinking about how to arrange art and accessories in different ways. That gave me ideas for tweaking the furniture arrangement. Before I put anything back, I assessed what would stay in the space. My criterion was “Does this say something about me?” And the result is perfect for me!
Sifting and sorting…
I have a long-standing interest in the idea of knowing ourselves to shape our environment. My first aha moment came more than twenty years ago, before clutter clearing and downsizing were in our vocabulary. I was living for a few months at Schumacher College, a centre of transformative learning for ecological and social change in the south of England.
I know! I’ll keep only what I can care for exquisitely.
So said Jeanne, who had spent a week grappling with what was, for her, a very big problem. Too much stuff, accumulated in the six years she had spent in the same flat. A gypsy at heart, she’d lived most of her adult life in a caravan (travel trailer). She felt weighed down and didn’t know how to sift and sort her things. When the solution hit her, it was clear—keep only what she could care for exquisitely.
The current version of the same principle is expressed beautifully in Marie Kondo’s books, in which she talks about keeping what sparks joy and thanking our things as we let them go.
Marie Kondo is Japanese, and these attitudes are embedded in her culture. Not so for Westerners, who are generally less tuned in to invisible energy. The following video gives a flavour of Marie Kondo and her approach, starting with a demonstration of what it feels like in your body when something “sparks joy.” You also get to see her signature method for folding clothes, which includes an energy compnent.
Despite finding it odd when she talks about showing respect for your space, feeling how your belongings affect your energy, and putting love into your clothes as you fold them, North Americans embraced Marie Kondo’s Netflix series (January 2019).
In Spark Joy, her most recent book, she offers a lot of practical tips in addition to explaining the rationale behind her approach. Below are a few key ideas, but I recommend reading her book to get the whole picture. It’s a quick read and available in most libraries.
A few Marie Kondo principles and tips…
Having spent most of my life looking at things of every description, including those in my clients’ homes, I have discovered three common elements involved in attraction: the actual beauty of the object itself (innate attraction), the amount of love that has been poured into it (acquired attraction), and the amount of history or significance it has accrued (experiential value).
Tidy by category, not by room. Categories are clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, sentimental items (includes photos). Bring all items from a category into one room and sort them all at once.
Tidy in the order listed in the previous point. Clothes are the easiest and you can gain experience by starting with them. Sentimental items have the most attachments so it works best if you tackle them at the end.
Finish discarding first, before you organize what remains.
When tidying papers, a “pending box” is essential for all papers requiring action (bills, letters, etc). Put them in it as you find them and forge ahead with the main job of tidying. Your papers will be safe there until you can get to them.
“As with clothing, you must begin by taking every single book off the shelves and piling them on the floor. Then take them in your hands and keep only those that spark joy. Whatever you do, don’t start reading them.”
“If you have too many books to choose all at once, sort them by categories, such as general (for reading), practical (references, cookbooks), visual (coffee-table books) and magazines, and do the joy check for each category.”
Tidy before moving. Note for elders who may be anticipating moving to smaller quarters: This is very good advice.
Do not keep something because “it might come in handy.” It never will. (I plead guilty, and she is mostly right. But I’ve been vindicated once or twice!)
If you have trouble telling if something sparks joy for you, compare it to other items in the same category. Find your top 3 in the pile in 3 minutes. This will help you hone in on what it feels like when something sparks joy in you.
“I’m convinced that things that have been loved and cherished acquire elegance and character. When we surround ourselves only with things that spark joy and shower them with love, we can transform our home into a space filled with precious artifacts, our very own art museum.”
For more of Marie Kondo, I suggest this delightful interview for further insights into her approach. Of course, she isn’t the only person with advice about dealing with your belongings.
***Time for this post? Reading… 8 minutes. Viewing…12 minutes. Exploring what is deeply satisfying to you…as long as it takes.
It’s not easy to know when to call it quits, to speak up and change course when we’ve had enough. This bold action requires us to think deeply about what’s important, and to take a stand for it…even when those around us have a different opinion about what we should do.
We are not enculturated to live—or die—on our own terms.
How much is enough?
… “enough” is not a number—it’s what is deeply satisfying.
The above quote is from Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my book about using our resources intentionally. It helps us all navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.
As I learn more about the way we die in the West, I keep seeing parallels between consumption of consumer goods and our engagement with healthcare services. In both cases, we can end up being used by the system rather than served by it.
One of the primary skills for making our way through the consumer culture is the ability to discern when enough is enough. Conscious awareness is what saves us from being used by the system.
We must become clear about what we consider fundamentally important for a good life. In most cases, this is found in our values—not in things or pills.
Healthcare is highly driven by consumerist values.These days, many treatments are possible and we can be swept along a long road of suffering just because there’s something more to try.
Medical professionals are trained to save lives, which is exactly what’s needed for dealing with emergencies. But different thinking is required when the medical issue is a chronic condition, terminal illness, or the frailty of old age. Our doctors may encourage us to try everything they have access to in hopes that something “will work” even when rescue from our conditions is not possible.
Pharmaceutical and equipment manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping us looking for the next new thing. We, as consumers of healthcare, can get caught in the thrall of doing anything and everything to buy more time—without thinking about the price we might pay in unintended consequences.
Rarely are dying people invited to think about what’s important to them and helped to determine which available options will let them live out their lives in alignment with what they really value.
Here’s an exception…
Dr. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, public health researcher, and author of the #1 NY Times bestseller, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Here’s a description from notes about his book:
Modern medicine has transformed the dangers of birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should do.
Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Gawande reveals the suffering produced by medicine’s neglect of the wishes people might have beyond mere survival.
To find out what those wishes are, we need to ask. We haven’t been asking, but we can learn. Riveting, honest, and humane, this remarkable book, which has already changed the national conversation on aging and death, shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life—all the way to the very end.
This is not a helpful question…
What do you want at the end of your life?
The following are better options because they get at a person’s priorities. Medical professionals should be asking them, but we can ask them of ourselves , and adult children can pose these qustions to their parents.
Ask these questions repeatedly over time, because priorities change as a person’s condition changes.
Well…what’s your understanding of your condition?
So….what are your fears and worries for the future?
What are the goals you have if your health should worsen?
What trade-offs are you willing to make—and not willing to make?
Let them have the damn cookies…
Suffering = No one asking you what matters to you, but telling you how they’re going to treat you.
When doctors don’t ask what matters to people, what they are doing to them is out of alignment with their priorities.
Medicalized nursing homes do not serve us well. Instead, they should create the freedom for people to make bad choices, talking to them about those choices when necessary.
Isn’t this what we all want? The tricky part is nurturing the mindset—individually and collectively—that will create a climate for our end of life to be humane instead of medicalized.
This brings up issues of quality of life that we should all be thinking about. Knowing what a good quality of life looks like to you will help you decide when you want to get off the treatment train.
It’s not a question of either fighting or giving up. The way through is for you to decide what is worth fighting for…and it may not be a longer life. It may be a life that best suits you in the time you have left. And only you can know what that will be.
Reset as things change…
Your condition will change and so will treatment options. As new treatments are presented, take a moment—or a day—to reset. Remember what you value most and consider how each option will align with it…or won’t align.
Give yourself permission…
I hope this perspective has given you things to think about, and permission to take a stand for what is right for you. We all deserve that.
*** Time for this post? Reading …1 minute. Viewing …19 minutes.
Enculturation is the process by which individuals learn their group’s culture—through experience, observation, and instruction. It is how traditions evolve.
We all become enculturated, that is, steeped in the way things are done in the society in which we live. It’s what we know, what we get used to, what we think is normal.
How WE do death isn’t the only way…
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and death acceptance advocate. She is founder of the nonprofit The Order of the Good Death, author of three books, and operates Undertaking LA, an alternative funeral home.
And here’s what they do in South Carolina when someone “has passed”…
A master of this subject [thinking about dying] —a self-described dealer in the “death trade” for over 20 years is Canada’s own Stephen Jenkinson. He has written a number of books – the last one called Come of Age and an earlier one entitled Die Wise.
He has a website called orphanwisdom.com and he is currently on tour through North America doing a presentation called “Nights of Grief and Mystery” with a musician named Greg Hoskins.
We recently attended this in Calgary—me and 5 family and friends who were not really looking forward to an uninterrupted 2.5 hours where entry was not allowed after the doors closed, with no intermission . About all I can say is that no one moved for the fastest 2.5 hours in my life and none was “unmoved’” by the content. My husband, who has a reputation for being able to sleep through ANYTHING shortly after it begins and wakes up as the clapping starts, was awake for the entire thing! He even said, “that was really good”!
I’d certainly encourage you to look at him as a resource. He has an NFB film about him and his work called Griefwalker which you can find on YouTube. He also teaches on occasion at Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island and teaches at his farm in Ontario.
As it happened, Stephen Jenkinson had not yet crossed my path—and I could hardly ignore such a compelling recommendation. Having listened to him on video, today I’m sharing an excellent interview that gives you a sense of what he’s about.
This is such a rich conversation, it’s impossible to summarize. Here are some things that leapt out at me…
The palliative care system is technologically driven and it shapes our credo of end-of-life care, which is—If you can, you should. It’s a philosophy that has no upside.
The “more-time” bargain we make to avoid the end of life has consequences we never imagined.
We have messed with the idea of “your time to die.” And so, we don’t die when we are dying…
Pneumonia used to be called “the old man’s friend.” Now it is treatable—and treated in the elderly—so we can’t even die from pneumonia anymore.
Our description of a “good death” is dictated by the attributes of the death phobia of the culture…
We should be asking, not what can we do about dying but what does dying ask of us?
Your obligation as your body’s trustee is to learn its ways, including its limits and, later, its dying too…
The Balinese tend to their dead in a morning ritual. The evidence of it is everywhere. I encountered this young woman on an early morning walk in Bali, holding a tray of beautifully prepared food that she was about to put out.
What caught your attention?
Stephen Jenkinson does not give us the same-old same-old. What caught your attention? Did you find things to think about?
*** Time for this post? Reading…3 minutes. Listening…10 minutes. Considering…at your leisure.
The death phobia that pervades our consumer culture does not serve us well…
We get to indulge in death phobia because commercial interests are right there, ready to step in and do the difficult things for us. In this way, we avoid a lot of discomfort.
But we pay a price for our comfort…and it’s not just in money. We become death illiterate, with no language for what death asks of us and no emotional capacity to recognize that death is asking something of us.
The cultural story…
Research has shown how important our attitude is, both individually and collectively. When enough of us hold a similar point of view, it becomes the cultural story. I like the term meta-narrative—the big over-arching story—because it conveys how pervasive the cultural story about anything can be.
When it comes to death, here are some of the attitudes Westerners are steeped in.
Dying is something that happens to us; it isn’t something we do.
When you’re dying, you’re not behaving right—You’re supposed to live.
We are victims of death.
We should battle against death as long as possible.
Good things should never end.
Dying is akin to failing.
[tweetshare tweet=””[tweetshare tweet=”Attitude is the most important decision you’ll make today. ~Paul Dughi #death #dying” username=”LauranaRayne”]
Not all cultures tell the same story about death…
Eastern philosophy, for example, has different perspectives that have gradually come into our field of view. The most notable catalyst for this awareness was when The Beatles went to India in 1968 for a training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Although the most famous, The Beatles were not the first Westerners to become intrigued with the Eastern view. Alan Watts, who died in 1973, was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker. He’s best known as an early interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.
Watts moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York, then earned a master’s degree in theology, and was an Episcopal priest before joining the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.
I find it interesting to listen to him, with his unique blend of East/West understanding. It always intrigues me to see how things that seem opposite—like East and West— can be wrapped up together to make a bigger, more coherent and dynamic whole.
Here are some of Alan Watts’ thoughts about death and dying…
“…just the end of you as a system of memory.”
Now isn’t that an intriguing thought! For more of his philosophy that helps us think in another way, here’s a compelling video about accepting death.
*** Time for this post? Reading… 9 minutes. Viewing… 4 minutes. Doing something to unhook yourself…up to you.
We live in a time when dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. In our consumer culture, commercial interests have taken over all the difficult things we used to do ourselves when someone died. In return, we get to detach from the experience and feel less discomfort.
That wasn’t always the case. Here’s a recollection shared by Nora, a reader who is now 90 years old.
My first direct experience [with death] was probably around the age of 5 or 6. In those days people still often dealt with the death of a family member at home, and my mother was often called on to help with washing of the body. In this particular instance a baby had died and I accompanied her to the farm where the family lived. They were friends. I watched as the baby was washed and placed in a small wooden box, then taken out and buried on the property. I didn’t see the burial, but can’t recall why. I only remember that I wasn’t scared and thought it was completely natural.
That had changed by the time the Baby Boomers were growing up in the 1950s and 60s. By then, the funeral industry was in full swing. Death was outsourced and we didn’t learn, as Nora did, that it is completely natural and not scary. In the absence of such experience, we’ve become fearful of the unknown and susceptible to the death phobia that pervades the culture around us.
Death phobia serves commercial interests…
Here are just a couple of ways that come to mind:
Death phobia causes us to take measures beyond all reason to stay alive or keep a dying family member alive. This keeps hospitals, cancer clinics, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies, and high-tech medical manufacturers in business. I find it interesting that more and more of the people working in these places are speaking out—saying that we’ve got it all wrong, that we need to view death differently, to see it as a natural process rather than a medical condition. Professor Ken Hillman is one of the front-line people who is speaking out. He’s an Australian intensive care physician who has seen a lot of people near the end of life. In his view, dying in the elderly is being hijacked. People end up in and out of hospital to treat failing organs or a broken bone caused by a fall. What the system does not recognize is that frailty is a natural condition that precedes death, and the elderly should be assessed in terms of frailty, not malfunctioning body systems. You won’t want to miss the TED Talk of this sensible and compassionate man. His recent book is A Good Life to the End.
Death phobia creates the climate where funeral homes are able to profit substantially from the susceptibility of grieving people. They know to manipulate us into spending far beyond our original intention—such as paying $10,000 for a casket that goes directly into a crematory furnace, or paying for unnecessary embalming of a body that will be cremated. If you think my attitude is too cynical, watch this undercover investigation by Canada’s CBC Marketplace.
The good news is…
There is movement back to sanity and we, the people, are no longer allowing the consumer culture and economic system to completely co-opt our experience of death.
Low-cost funerals are available if you do some basic consumer research. It’s easy with the internet to do some initial screening—starting with a search for “low-cost funerals” followed by your city name. When you find funeral providers that offer the level of service you want at a reasonable price, check their reliability. Read the testimonials on their website (and wonder why they don’t have any if they don’t). Check out the company at the Better Business Bureau. There you’ll discover how long they’ve been in business, their BBB rating from F to A+, and what customers have said about their experience with that company. After this pre-screening, call companies that still interest you and do a telephone interview. By then you’ll have enough information to make your selection. In my case, I selected a low-cost provider and got what I wanted for $1600. A full-service funeral home, with a chapel and reception area I wouldn’t be using, gave me a quote of $4100 for exactly the same services (simple cremation). It takes some time up front, but the reward is that you save thousands of dollars by not leaving it to your family to make a last-minute decision after you’ve died.
Memorial societies and cooperatives are not-fo-profit organizations made up of members who have joined together to obtain dignity, simplicity and economy in funeral arrangements. Instead of directly offering funeral services, they negotiate with existing funeral homes to obtain reduced rates for their members. You pay a modest fee to join, and then make your arrangements with one of the specified funeral homes. The selected providers have funeral homes that offer a full range of services including large chapels, reception rooms, and on-site parking. For some people, this is an advantage over low-cost funeral providers, which usually do not have these facilities and cater to people who have their own locations (home or religious building) for the service and reception.
People are befriending death so they are more comfortable with planning for its arrival instead of avoiding thinking about it.
People are talking about death over dinner across the world. Between 2013 and 2016, more than 100,000 death-over-dinners were held in 30 countries. Imagine that!
I love how they are taking charge! And other people must too, because there are now coffin clubs throughout New Zealand, in the UK, and in Tasmania.
The Coffin Club was started in 2010 by Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse, to personalize funerals and drastically reduce cost. But, she says, the biggest attraction of the Coffin Club movement is companionship. Watch this short video and don’t miss the “chook-in-the-box” around the 4-minute mark.
So…has this inspired you in any way—even a small one—to see how you can unhook your death from the dictates of the consumer culture? I’d love to hear…
’I’ am just a collection of particles that is arranged into this pattern, then will decompose and be available, all of its constituent parts, to nature, to reorganize into another pattern. To me, that is so exciting, and it makes me even more grateful to be part of that process.
This talk was posted in April 2018. Emily Levine died on February 3, 2019. Emily’s Universe carries on.
*** Time for this post? Reading…10 minutes. Viewing…17 minutes. Considering…as you wish.
Death. Dying. Have you noticed that most people dance around the subject of death when they’re in a situation that puts it in their face—whether it’s their dying or someone else’s.
Case in point—the funeral director I met with a few months ago. I was making my Plan B arrangements in case my body donation doesn’t go through. (This could happen if its condition is unsuitable at the time I die.)
Obviously, I wasn’t prepaying for a funeral since I don’t know whether or not I’ll need their services. But he was willing to meet with me, on that understanding, to fill out the paperwork. There are some tricky questions on the forms that must be submitted when registering a death, and I wanted to make sure the correct answers are on file.
Within minutes, it was obvious that the funeral director was selecting his words carefully in an effort to avoid causing me discomfort. Fair enough, in that we had just met and he was trying to assess where I was coming from.
I helped him out by saying something very direct about my death that let him know he could speak freely. The conversation was much more satisfying after that.
Elders have a responsibility…
I think it’s our responsibility, as elders, to get over ourselves and any preciousness we may feel about dying. Shifting our mindset leads to more constructive behaviours, and we will be modelling a better way for our children, grandchildren, and perhaps also our friends.
We Baby Boomers have grown up in a death-phobic culture in which dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. This has left us crippled, unable to handle death well. And that’s what our children and grandchildren are learning from us. This is the time for us to turn the tide—to learn what death requires of us and become comfortable talking about it.
I’m not a fan of euphemisms…
In a death-phobic culture, it becomes the norm to use euphemisms—substituting mild, indirect, or vague expressions for those thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt. Legacy.com, which hosts more than 20 million on-line obituaries, lists the top ten euphemisms used in death notices. If ten isn’t enough, here’s a longer list.
Went to be with (the/his/her) Lord
Entered eternal rest
Was called home
Left this world
Lost his/her battle
Somehow, the word “die” is culturally perceived as offensive, harsh, and blunt. Yet its actual definition is straightforward: To cease functioning, to stop living or existing, to undergo the complete and permanent cessation of all vital functions.
Euphemistic expressions for death and dying have been described as “verbal tranquilizers” and I think it’s a fair description of how we attempt to avoid what are seen as harsh realities.
In her excellent article about whether euphemisms are helpful or harmful, social worker Esther Heerema says:
…using the word “dead” makes it difficult to deny the reality. And, psychologically, while denial clearly needs to turn to acceptance, a little bit of denial is not all bad as a short-term coping mechanism. Indirect language can sometimes be a helpful way to mentally and emotionally handle your feelings gradually.
She also points out that euphemisms may be used for reasons other than denial. These include protection, to avoid being rude or offensive, to avoid discomfort, to offer spiritual comfort, or because of our own grief.
Her article highlights several considerations, including using euphemisms with children and principles for knowing when direct communication is the best choice.
Using euphemisms when speaking to children about death is usually not recommended. While the intention is to be gentle and protect the child from additional pain, indirect language is often confusing to a child. A euphemism involving terms such as “asleep” or “rest” might cause them to misunderstand and become fearful of going to bed at night. Similarly, saying, “We lost Uncle Fred last night” could prevent the child from comprehending that the person died and instead prompt them to go looking for Uncle Fred because he’s “lost.”
…When you should use direct language: The words death, dead, and dying should be used when it’s important to be very clear about what is happening. This includes when critical medical decisions are being made based on the prognosis of the patient, when speaking with those who might not fully understand indirect language, and when there might be a language barrier that might hinder understanding.
Talking about death over dinner…
Death Over Dinner, an initiative by Michael Hebb, is a deliberate opportunity to talk with others about death. For the past 20 years, Hebb has been working to “understand the secrets of human connection. His projects have turned into international movements and impacted millions. His second book Let’s Talk About Death was published in 2018.”
You might wonder why anyone would have a conversation about death over dinner. Here’s how it’s explained on the Death Over Dinner website:
The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity. It offers an environment that is more suitable than the usual places we discuss end of life.
So, it’s an intriguing idea. What I really like is how they’ve created a structure that helps you plan an event tailored to your interest in the subject. After filling in a simple questionnaire, you receive practical planning and hosting help, including
Suggested dinner invitation text, including the read/watch/listen resources you chose to share with your guests
Proposed conversation prompts for your dinner
Post-dinner activities and ways to share your experience with the community
The cool thing is you can try this out even if you don’t go ahead with the dinner. I found it a really good way to gain perspective on the breadth of the topic of dying, to review the variety of resources they have included, and see what conversation starters they suggested. I highly recommend checking it out at deathoverdinner.org
You can get more of the back story in a 2016 article in The Atlantic or the book that was published near the end of 2018. Or listen to Michael Hebb himself…
What do you think?
Would you be inclined to organize a dinner to talk about death? If not, do you wonder why you wouldn’t? That might be revealing…