The last taboo: Why it pays to talk about death

Most people want to focus on the positives to help maintain a happy life. Everyone has goals they want to achieve (places they’d like to go, or challenges they intend to overcome), and staying positive is one of the best ways to achieve them. 

Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to focus on the negatives, even if it’s uncomfortable. There are dark topics we must all face, with death being top of the list for many of us. Dying is something we all fear, so it’s only natural that we avoid talking about it in the hope that it will stop us from thinking about it.

This approach works most of the time. But you will think about it sometimes, no matter how hard you try not to. In fact, in the appropriate situations, if you can work up the courage to talk about death, it can benefit you and your loved ones. Here’s why:

The death of a loved one is always a burden

Most people would agree that what really matters in life is sharing it with those you love. We’re communal creatures, after all. Isn’t your family more important to you than anything else? You won’t need to deal with your death (you won’t really be around for it), but your family will. And dealing with the death of a loved one is extremely hard.

By talking about that time now, setting out your plans and expectations, you can reassure your family and set your own mind at ease. 

For example, do you have a will ready so your estate won’t need to be contested? Are you paying into life insurance to protect the things that really matter? Have you informed the relevant people of what you’d like your funeral to involve? If you don’t talk about death, you can end up ignoring these things, ensuring that you leave trouble behind.

It’s highly likely your loved ones don’t want to talk about it either. We don’t like to think about the mortality of those we care about. It’s easier to assume you have time and kick the can down the road — but that time isn’t guaranteed. It’s best to get these things figured out while you can, even if you need to involve loved ones in uncomfortable discussions. 

Dying can give your life greater meaning

Would you really want to live forever? It’s an easy thing to dream about, but immortality would be miserable. You’d watch everyone you cared about die, breaking your heart over and over again. And if everyone got to live forever, how quickly would life start to feel hollow?

In so many ways, it’s the finite nature of human life that makes it meaningful. Every moment you spend is one you won’t get back. Every joyful afternoon matters within a fixed lifespan. When we talk about death, we accept that we won’t be around forever. This inspires us to treasure the good times and be truly thankful.

And when we avoid thinking about it, we start letting our precious time slip by. Today is just one of many days. It’s nothing special. But what if today is all you have? Remembering that your days are ticking down can make every part of your life feel more vibrant.

Sharing can free us from the fears holding us back

Accepting that you only have so much time is one thing, but changing your life is a different thing altogether. Part of the problem — perhaps the biggest part — is that we’re afraid. We fear both death and failure, but we conceal those fears, allowing them to fester within us.

When you open up about your fears, things change. You’re reminded that you’re not alone in having them. You also gain some vital perspective. When you can look at fear from outside, you can see how it needlessly holds people back, and figure out how to handle it.

Even simply admitting that you’re terrified of death can prove hugely liberating. Once it’s out there, you can start to unpack it. Is it the unknown that scares you? If so, remember that ‘unknown’ isn’t the same as ‘bad’. But maybe it’s the prospect of living an average life that truly scares you. If so, accepting that fear can liberate you from it. As long as you’re still alive, you still have the potential to turn things around and find a true purpose.

There’s great comedy to be found in our indignities

Death can be funny. In fact, it can be hilarious. Morbid comedy has a key role to play in society. The fact that we wither away doesn’t need to sink our spirits. Gallows humour allows us to make it a source of joy. Some people plan elaborate pranks for their funerals. Others joke about their memories going or their bodies falling apart.

When something terrible happens, you can choose to laugh or cry about it. Crying has its value, but laughter is generally more useful. Every time you laugh about your hairline receding or your knees giving up, you take life’s biggest source of heartbreak and make it a laughing stock.

In the end, it’s best to find a good balance with conversations about death: it isn’t something you should talk about very often, but you should talk about it on occasion. You can make practical plans, look for inspiration or motivation, or even try to undercut its power to scare you by cracking wise about it. Fearing the topic of death will only make you fear it more. It’s a normal part of life — so let’s normalise it!

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Written by Alistair Clarke
Alistair Clarke is a writer and amateur philosopher who likes to tackle the big topics. He's firmly of the opinion that being prepared for every eventuality is the key to contentment. He might have been a therapist in another life, but he's satisfied with how things turned out.
Written by Alistair Clarke
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