Dying Matters Awareness Week – Start the Conversation

Dying Matters Awareness Week – Start the Conversation

By Jane Flaherty

This year’s theme on Dying Matters focuses on the workplace. We spend such a large part of our lives at work, we will all have come across friends, colleagues, clients, or customers that are experiencing grief. How do we deal with that? It’s not part of our training and what I find is that because we don’t know how to deal with it, it generally leads to avoidance, whether that is avoiding the topic of conversation or, even more damaging, avoiding the person who is experiencing grief.

As a private client solicitor, I often have difficult conversations with my clients about later life matters which involve talking about death. As a result of this, I can talk freely about subjects that can be very difficult for most people to talk about. These conversations can make people feel uncomfortable.

On that note, I think the best thing that we can do is to start having conversations about some of the things that affect all of us which may open a door to being able to talk more openly about the impact of death and grief. I also believe that talking about practical matters can help to take away some of the added stresses that may result when we lose a loved one if we have not addressed them beforehand.

I have chosen four conversation topics that you could instigate in the works canteen or kitchen whilst on a break and you could even talk about these around the dinner table at home. You may be surprised at how easy it is once the conversation has started. They are also not directly asking people about their loss as this may be too personal depending on how well you know someone.

Conversation One – Digital Assets

This seems like an odd choice but as we are very much living in a digital age, we have to ensure that our later life planning addresses this issue. This topic goes deeper than we may at first think.

I was having coffee with a friend who relayed to me how someone she knew had lost their spouse. The deceased had a Strava app that they used to track their runs. Her friend wanted to access this account to follow those runs and feel connected to their deceased spouse, and they could not because they were not allowed access to the account.

How many of us have photos on Facebook or Instagram etc? Have you read the terms and conditions to know what will happen to your account on your death?

My practical advice, that could form part of your conversation, is to audit your IT footpath. Be aware of what you hold electronically so that you can plan accordingly. Do you need to print your photos? Are there emails that you would not want anyone to see? Maybe you have assets of value such as cryptocurrency or intellectual property, if you are an author for example. Take advice and, in any event, have a plan.

Conversation Two – Have you made a Will?

I am always surprised by how few people have made a Will. I hear all sorts of reasons why, from people believing it’s going to be a complicated thing to do or that they will jinx themselves or they mistakenly feel that they don’t need one as everything will pass to their partner.

Whilst making a Will does not take away the pain of losing a loved one, it does mean that the people left behind have certainty about your wishes. You get to choose who you want to sort out your estate. You can include who you want to benefit and in what shares. You can use a Will to protect vulnerable beneficiaries and you can appoint guardians for your children; if you have a complex family structure you can address that now to prevent problems beyond the grave.

Without a Will, your estate will be distributed according to the statutory rules of intestacy. These rules do not provide for unmarried partners or stepchildren. This means that the people left behind may need to make a claim against your estate to ensure that they are provided for at a time when they are trying to come to terms with their loss.

By starting a conversation, it may encourage someone to go and seek some professional advice to put their affairs in order.

Conversation Three – Your Funeral

I know this is not exactly a mood lifter and I often make a joke about this when I am discussing this with clients. In all seriousness, funerals and ashes are often what families fall out about. Many moons ago, I had a client who had two sets of children from two separate relationships. When the client passed away their will was silent as to their funeral wishes. Both sets of children believed they knew what their parent wanted. The problem being one set of children believed their parent wanted to be buried and one set of children believed the parent wanted to be cremated.

It’s really important that your loved ones know what you would like. If you don’t want a prepaid funeral plan at the very least write it down or even leave your wishes in your Will to prevent heartache and, in some circumstances, litigation.

Conversation Four – Your Health and Welfare

Another topic I think that we have difficulty talking about is a plan for your end of life. I have had a range of conversations with clients who are not always aware of what they can do. I have had clients who have been diagnosed with a particular illness who wish to put in place a living Will or advance decisions about their treatment as their illness progresses. I have had some clients who have some idea as to what circumstances they would not wish to be resuscitated for but may not have necessarily formalised this or discussed it with their families.

Even if you are not thinking about the specifics of life-sustaining treatment, you may wish to consider making a Health and Welfare Lasting Power of Attorney so that if you lose the capacity to make health and welfare decisions, such as what care you may wish to receive and where you will receive that care, you are deciding who will make those decisions on your behalf.

It is also important to make sure that your wishes are recorded correctly to ensure your document is lawful – this can be done by taking professional advice.

With the increase in people suffering from dementia, families can be grieving even though their loved one has not passed away. At this time, the only important factor is their health and welfare. This is a very important conversation to be having.

Whilst the topics above do not directly address grief, it is a way to start a shift around topics that touch on death. Our colleagues, friends, and family may add to these conversations based on their experiences of having to deal with the above because they have lost a loved one. This opens the door to openness around uncomfortable, difficult, and emotional conversations that are all part of the healing process.