The Elephant in the Room

That elephant is back in the room, and we are still not talking about it.

I’m not referring to COVID 19, although that has initiated much debate about issues like the lack of PPE’s for frontline workers; sharing advice on the challenges of self-isolation and social distancing, although sadly there is still a minority who are not listening. Social media these days is filled with great suggestions on how to care for ourselves while caring for others. Sadly, it has also become the playground for the “blame game” which is so prevalent in today’s world.

But there is a deeper issue here, and we are tiptoeing around it.

The elephant is bringing us face to face with our own mortality.

COVID 19 has forced everyone exposed to the virus to realize this could be fatal; even the threat of potential infection by community transmission, travel, or social interaction; and perhaps especially front line professionals, from doctors and health care workers, to grocery store staff, funeral directors and other essential services; all are facing the very real possibility that “This job could be the death of me!”

The numbers, real and potential, have been incredible and have left people in shock, disbelief and even despair. Within a few short weeks we have gone from “no worse than the flu” statistics to figures that suggest the possibility of deaths in staggering and unprecedented numbers.

And in my view, this reality is just kicking in. I believe there has been a “this is happening, but it won’t happen to ME” mentality in many quarters, which has only made the problem worse.

We are witnessing people not being able to be present with relatives in nursing homes and hospitals when they are dying. And to add insult to injury, when their loved one dies, they are not able to have funerals as they would wish, where ceremonies are in limited numbers of people keeping a social distance, where hugging grieving family or friends is a no-no.

The vast majority understands the medical need to enforce such drastic measures to limit the spread of the virus these days, but nonetheless it is extremely painful for those directly affected by such necessary conditions.

But let’s get back to our elephant. Why is it so difficult to talk about death? Death is a taboo word, defined as “an open secret which everyone knows but which no-one talks about.” While we all know that every life comes to an inevitable close, death somehow makes for uncomfortable small talk which we fear could lead to a very “un-British” display of emotion.

So we can talk about the disease and strategies to cope with situations because that is something we are able, albeit eventually able to control.
But death is beyond our control. The biggest myth about death is that “If we talk about it, or prepare for it, it is going to happen.” Guess what! It is going to happen anyway, and talking about it neither hastens nor delays the actual moment. All it does is give us the opportunity to decide if we want to face it prepared or unprepared.

I have come to realize the following truths:

1. Talking about death is really a conversation about LIFE.
I often ask people, “if you knew you only had 6 months to live, what would you do? Would you be doing the things currently in your day timer, or would you do something different?”

Very few people get to the end of life and say, “Gee I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Most of us would say, “I wish I had spent more time with the people I cared about, and focussed on what was really important.” But, sadly many people leave a bucket list of things they never got round to doing. We have things we want to do in life, but put it off for “one of these days.”

Life, even at its longest is brief. Wisdom begins when “one of these days” becomes “here and now.” If this virus teaches us anything it is surely about the tenuous nature of life. It teaches us that life is the gift and we have to make the most of it while we still can, before it’s too late.

2. Talking about death helps us identify our priorities.
Remembering that life is finite helps us be intentional with our actions. Spend time with the people who matter to you, doing things that make you happy. As the Irish proverb has it: “Dance as if no one is watching, sing as if no one were listening, and live every day as if it were your last!”

Living with death in view helps us think about what “the point” is. Ask yourself what you truly value, what you stand for, what you want to be remembered for, and what you believe is your purpose. And always keep moving in that direction.

I have come to believe that death is not the ultimate loss. A life that is unlived is the real tragedy. It’s realizing our time here is limited that motivates us to truly live our lives to the full.

So, if you’re feeling courageous, make some space for thinking and talking about death. It’s natural that the possibility of death causes anxiety; what is so difficult is the uncertainty of what will happen, because we are not in control. It is a matter of faith, and we will not know until we get there. But the more we talk about it, the less frightening it becomes.

While we grieve the deaths of so many in this pandemic, not everyone will succumb to this virus. But regardless death comes to us all eventually. It’s a part of life.

When my life ends, I hope by talking with them about it, my family will be comforted by being able to say, “This is what he would have wanted”.

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