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Overcoming fear of death: The death positive movement

Talking about death

For many of us, death’s a scary prospect, but there’s a growing movement around the world that’s saying let’s talk about how to overcome the fear of death.

The death positive movement has a focus on demystifying death and become more matter of fact, or even philosophical about the final journey we’re all ultimately destined to make.

The death positive movement encompasses all kinds of dying matters, from social groups enabling people to talk about the practical, political, metaphysical, spiritual and funeral rituals. Death’s a huge topic, after all.

What is the death positive movement?

Being death positive doesn’t mean thinking that death is a good thing. It’s not about trivialising the profound suffering the bereaved can endure, when someone they love dies.

In fact, many people who strive to be death positive aim to to acknowledge and understand both their own feelings of loss and the grief of others. Death positive conversations can address how we acknowledge and work through grief, or support someone, after a bereavement.

Because of this, in recent years the death positive movement has been embraced by charities, palliative care organisations and funeral directors.

The reasoning is that the more open people are about death, the better prepared they will be, and the more they will embrace the present moment.

Death positive practical steps

writing a will

Writing a will, preparing an end of life care plan, taking out a funeral plan, or setting out your funeral wishes, are among the very practical death positive steps you can take.

In a practical sense, the death positive movement helps empower and support people to make their own end of life choices. Survey suggest, for instance, that more than three in five Australians would prefer to die peacefully at home, although according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only around 20 per cent of Australians died outside of hospital or residential aged care in the first decade of the 21st century.

Only a few generations ago death, like childbirth, was a stage in life that for most people, happened at home. Families took care of loved ones through final illnesses and were more familiar with death. Today, pioneering advances in medicine and healthcare have helped us live longer, and sometimes happier, lives.

The so-called ‘medicalisation of death’ has become a situation across the developed world that, according to the death positive movement, has led many of us to become out of touch with death.

US-based death positive movement, The Order of the Good Death says death-phobia prevents people from making important decisions about end of life care, their funeral and their estate.

Talking about death

Many healthcare specialists and palliative care charities in Australia want people to talk, to ensure they have the kind of care and death they want.

They have been calling on people to talk more openly about end of life matters, so that when the time comes, they have the option of a ‘good’ death, mindful of their wishes.

“Dying is a normal part of life and everyone deserves a positive end-of-life experience,” says Liz Callaghan, chief executive of Palliative Care Australia.

“It’s important we normalise conversations around death so that people can plan ahead and their families know what they would want if they could no longer talk for themselves.”

Death ‘literacy’

During National Palliative Care Week in May 2017, Palliative Care Australia launched Dying to Talk, a campaign aimed to get the conversation started about what would happen if we became very sick.

It said only 28 per cent of Australians had broached the subject with close family members, with many of those who hadn’t saying they found the subject uncomfortable, or didn’t want to upset their loved ones by talking about death.

The GroundSwell Project is a non-profit organisation working to make Australians more ‘death literate’.

Founded by Clinical Psychologist Kerrie Noonan, and playwright Peta Murray in 2009, its manifesto is simple: “We want to live in a world where every person, every family and every community knows what to do when someone is dying or grieving.”

They say nothing should be off limits: “We believe that the topic of death isn’t taboo, weird or morbid.

“Regardless of age, culture, religion, profession or health status we all benefit from opportunities to participate in meaningful rituals and self-expression about death.”

Dying to Know Day

Over the past eight years or so, GroundSwell has held many campaigns and events around talking about death. It is also behind Australia’s death positive Dying to Know Day which is now marked by communities in August every year.

With the support of a number of major Australian research institutions GroundSwell has also embarked on a significant project to develop a ‘world first’ death literacy index. Its focus is to identify just how ‘death literate’ people are within their local communities, as well as nationally.

It also aims to determine the positive impact of a death literate approach. It’s findings may contribute to the development of healthcare policy, and best practice in end of life care.

Being death positive can also be about accepting our mortality and, by doing so, get more out of life.

Death Cafe

Social groups have also formed around the death positive movement. Perhaps the best-known is Death Cafe, founded by the late Jon Underwood, and where people can talk about everything from end-of-life care and funeral options, to experiences with loss and how to cope with grief.

Informal and usually involving cake and cups of tea, Death Cafes are a place for open conversation, sharing thoughts and considering how to overcome the fear of death.

Overcoming the fear of death

For Sydney-based artist and filmmaker Stefan Hunt, pondering death helped him out of a depression and anxiety, that had led him to feel his life was spiralling out of control.

In November 2017, he curated Australia’s first We’re All Going to Die festival a melange of arts, music and conversation, based upon the philosphy that by accepting death as an inevitable, we can all learn to live more.

“Suddenly my fears seemed small,” he said. “I realised that if life’s only guarantee is death then why not take a few risks?”

“We do need to talk about what it means to have a good death,” says comedian and cancer survivor Luke Ryan, who toured a live comedy show based on his bestselling memoir, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo. “Death used to be such a fact of life,” he says.

“As a society, we’ve gotten a lot better at warding off death, but become a lot worse at actually dying.”

“We believe that end-of-life conversations are best done WAY BEFORE Emergency,” says the GroundSwell Project.

It advocates for people talking about death – “pretty much any other place” – whether that’s in the family lounge room, during a long walk, over soup, or with cake.

“Talking about death,” its reminds us, “never killed anyone.


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