Why I like talking about death over spicy pork and NFL games
I realized a long time ago that my mom and I could only have good conversations when we were distracted by something.
Sometimes, it was just being on the opposite ends of the country, talking on the phone. Similarly, we spent a great deal of time shopping together, talking in the car on the way to the mall or chatting while we waited in line to pay. One of the last times I went home before she died, I volunteered to help her plan my dad’s birthday party, so that we’d have a reason to talk more often, but we could still have something to distract us if I got too frustrated, angry, or annoyed with our conversations about my personal life.
I recently spent the weekend in Seattle with my sister and brother-in-law, trying to get away from Vancouver and also just trying to solidify our relationship (because “family’s all you’ve got” means a lot more after you lose a parent). We got our nails done, went to the movies, watched tv, and wandered Barnes and Noble. Over the course of the weekend we managed to have some pretty serious conversations — about life, death, dad, mom — and, thankfully, they went really well. I noticed though, that they were always made easier when we had something else to do.
While we were at dinner one night, my brother-in-law stopped us to ask, “So can I ask you guys a question.” We both sat across the table from him, chewing spicy pork and affirming with a nod.
“What’s the plan with your dad for the twilight years?”
Instead of “Oh shit, why here, why now?? Gimme something else to focus on!” I just though “Thank goodness we are doing this over dinner.”
We talked for a while, seemingly on the same page and did our best to listen, plan, and stay present.
When people ask me how I talk about death, dying, and grief so openly, I have a few answers:
1. I am scared just like you, I just use that to motivate urgency and importance.
2. I’m uncomfortable just like you, but I do little things to make it easier.
3. Sometimes I avoid it, and I both recognize that that is a mistake, but that we’ve been raised ill-equipped to have these convos… so I gotta just chill out and find ways to get it done.
For me at least, I find that these conversations are easier to have when you’re distracted by something.
Yeah, I’ve had one of these conversations with my dad after my mom’s funeral (see: “Get your shit together and tell me what you want because I’m not planning another funeral alone again” conversation). But that’s about it.
You can pause to fidget with your chopsticks. You can chew until you’re ready to speak. You can stare at your nails and the lady doing them. Or you can all stare at the road or the tv while you think. For me, it doesn’t make the conversations any less meaningful — I get the same hard stuff done talking to my dad staring him straight in the eyes as I do when we’re sitting next to each other on the couch watching the game. And what matters to me is that the conversations are being had at all.
Here’s a few suggestions I have for starting these convos with your parents or loved ones:
Do it in person, if you can.
You might be thinking “The phone / email is easier, we don’t have to look at or cry in front of each other” or “I live far away, and making a trip home just to talk about this feels depressing. I’ll do it later.” And I totally get that — I haven’t lived at home for more than a month and a half since my mom died, and I’m doing my best to have these convos as often as possible. But one thing I’ve noticed is that when you do it in person, there are so many things that’ll make it easier. Someone seeing your face can be comforting, and also communicate more than words ever could. Holding hands or hugging at the end of these conversations (which warning: can include some crying) feels much better than just hanging up the phone. And doing it in a place that’s familiar to both of you — together — can make it more comfortable and easier.
When you start a conversation with “Hey what do you want to happen to your body when you die?” or “If you have dementia in the next 5 years, what are we supposed to do?” it can be very overwhelming for the person you’re sitting across from. These decisions are hard to make, easy to avoid, and ultimately affect both parties. So, come prepared with some suggestions, stories about what other people have done, and what you think might be feasible.
Remember that it’s often not a one-time thing.
The hardest part of all of this is starting the conversation. But know that it’s not always a “Hey how do you wanna do this?” “Well I want x, y, and z.” “Okay cool! Heard, done, see ya at the finish line.” situation.
Take it easy on yourself.
There are lots of ways to communicate without staring your aging parent or stressed out siblings in the eyes. I communicate urgency with my voice to make up for the awkwardness that’s being communicated with my body language. I create a sense of understanding with my willingness to have these conversations in a place that’s comfortable for others, instead of carving out time at 2:00 pm next Saturday for a call about all things wills, doctor’s visits, and funeral plans. And I do my best because that’s all I can ask of myself.
When we were leaving dinner, my sister said to me, “Well glad we just had that really stressful, depressing conversation over dinner.” I said, “Yeah but it was necessary.” Her response: “I know that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not stressful and depressing.”
She’s right. As much as I am all for figuring out how to have the tough convos, I fully recognize that just because we have to have them, that doesn't mean they’re going to be fun. There’s steps to take (like bringing it up over spicy pork and kimchi, or a lull in a March Madness game) which can make it a little bit easier to do.
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash