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Why We Don't Talk About Death (But Should)

why we don't talk about death

Six reasons why people avoid this important conversation.

There are a number of conversations that are inherently difficult — that first romantic breakup as a teenager, having the birds-and-bees talk with your children or telling loved ones about a divorce. The most difficult conversation, however, might just be talking about the end of your life — talking about death. There are a number of reasons people avoid this discussion. Understanding why you’re avoiding it can help you work up the courage to have this important conversation with people who are close to you. Here are six reasons why people avoid this topic: 

We don't feel prepared. Maybe we are in debt, haven’t saved enough or don’t know how our children would manage financially if we died. These uncertainties can keep us from discussing death — or even preparing for it by writing a will. We don’t want to think about how we overspent on our house, don’t have enough life insurance. or haven’t pre-planned  (or pre-paid) our funeral.


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It is unsettling to think about our mortality. The finality and uncertainty that surrounds death can be frightening, even for people of faith. Most of us attempt to put it out of our minds on a daily basis. Attending funerals, seeing headlines about a relevant tragedy, or having a health scare can put a too bright spotlight on death. While the idea of living every day as if it’s your last might sound great in a song, a constant awareness of death can leave most of us feeling anxious and uncomfortable.

We don’t want to traumatize our loved ones. We believe that discussing our death will be unsettling to those around us. We remember how distressed we felt when we had to face the fact that our loved ones wouldn’t live forever. We typically care a great deal about those closest to us and don’t want to see them upset or sad. That makes it seem reasonable — and perhaps even for the best — to not talk about death with them.

We fear a family dispute. Talking about death in most families is a tough conversation, whether discussing end-of-life planning, funeral wishes, inheritance matters, etc. Perhaps you want to be cremated but know your family is against the idea. Or you don’t want certain medical treatments if you become seriously ill. These issues — along with discussions about inheritances — can make tempers flare, leave feelings hurt and destroy relationships.

It makes us think about all we haven't accomplished. We haven't taken that trip to Europe, finished our degree, learned to cook, hit a hole-in-one, or held our granddaughter. That can prompt anxiety, sadness and, in some cases, even depression. Most of us subconsciously believe that we will live for a long time — regardless of our age or health. Thinking about and discussing our mortality forces a self-evaluation process and life review that is unnerving for many of us.

We feel badly about asking loved ones to do work on our behalf. Talking about death can inevitability lead to discussions about the work to be done afterward. Who will deal with funeral arrangements, who will serve as executor of the estate, who will clear out and sell the home, deal with finances, and on and on? Settling an estate typically requires tremendous time and energy. Many of us feel badly about handing off all this work to someone, especially because we won’t be there to help. As a result, sometimes it’s easier to avoid the topic altogether.

While these perceptions are all fair and reasonable, avoiding the death discussion does not make potential issues go away. It simply delays — and often exacerbates — them. If your loved ones are uncertain about what your true wishes are after you’re gone, it can add to family turmoil at an already sad and stressful time.

Think about this — if two of your loved ones disagree on who will get an item, wouldn’t you like to be there to understand their feelings and make sure the dispute is resolved quickly and fairly? Candid conversations now will help ensure that you’ll be able to keep family relationships as strong as possible after you’re gone.

And remember, almost no estate — or life, for that matter — is ever completely in order because our lives are always changing. If you wait until everything is decided, organized and perfect, you likely will never even take the first step of talking with your loved ones about your end-of-life and after-death wishes.

By discussing your wishes — and documenting them with the help of an estate attorney — you are taking great strides toward keeping the peace among your loved ones after you’re gone.


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Ashley Gerwig, MA, NCC is a writer and nationally-certified psychotherapist. She serves as the director of communications for Executor.org. She has more than 20 years of writing experience and has worked for various publications, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Executor.org is a free resource for executors to help them better understand the role, track their progress, and store important information as they settle an estate.


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