We Need To Talk About Death And Spark 'The Gentlest Revolution Imaginable'

No need to be morbid. It should be a celebration. A realisation.

26/05/2016 1:30 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
Lisa Wilkinson
Lisa Wilkinson with her father, Ray, and her mother, Beryl.

Do you remember the first time you realised that one day you were going to die?

As a life "moment", it probably happened about the time you finally accepted that you and your siblings were not the product of some immaculate conception and that your parents probably did do you-know-what at least once in order to have you. Or the time that rogue kid from down the road told you the truth about Santa.

The latter two of those "moments" of course, we all get through pretty early. But death, with all its finality, and the fact that with each passing day we are all getting inexorably closer to our own ultimate passing, is a biggie. And one we rarely discuss... let alone think too much about.

Have you ever wondered, for example, who you would like to carry your coffin? Who, at your ultimate farewell, will be charged with the enormous honour of seeing you to your final resting place? And if you don't plan ahead and make those names known to anyone, who would do the choosing for you. Would they get it right?

What about how you'll die? Where? Or even when? And if you could have a say in any of it, do your loved ones actually know your wishes?

Because the truth is, all of us are a little closer today to those momentous decisions being taken -- with or without our input -- than we were yesterday. And tomorrow we'll be closer still. So why don't we talk about it? Or take ownership?


Is it superstition? The belief that if we say it, it will happen? Well, that's already a given. Because death is just something we so rarely talk about, that by the time that death-knock comes, it is all too late, and all those important decisions are inevitably left to others.

Certainly that was the situation with my own father. My beautiful, kind, absolute rock of a Dad who I always thought was surely going to live forever. At 69, and two decades after giving up his three-pack-a-day smoking habit, perhaps he thought he might live forever too. But then the diagnosis came. They never did find the primary cancer, so riddled was he with the disease.

Lisa Wilkinson
Lisa's father Ray lighting up in the Blue Mountains in the '50s. (When, sadly, smoking was just what people did.)

When he was rushed to hospital, it took every ounce of strength I had in me before I could bring myself to visit his bedside. His pain was unbearable, dulled back to "comfortable" by four-hourly doses of morphine. Yes, he could talk, but we resolutely ignored the elephant in the room.

Conversations were about the weather, our dogs, my work, his beloved game of rugby union and whether the Wallabies would ever get to hold the Rugby World Cup aloft. I read to him articles by a young up-and-coming Sydney Morning Herald footballer-cum-journalist whose work he seemed to like by the name of Peter FitzSimons.

I think I even told him at one point that everything was going to be OK. A promise I couldn't keep. Truth is, I couldn't imagine life without him.

The end came quickly. Three weeks from diagnosis to death. God. And if there was one, where the hell was he when I needed him most?

And so, at exactly 3.00 am on 16th May, 1990, my wonderful father drew his last tortured breath, just as his next morphine dose was due. His weary body had had enough.

We stayed by his side, taking turns holding his hand, assuring him of our love as the sun rose through the lounge room windows that morning, right up until the funeral director arrived a full five hours after dad last closed his eyes, never quite believing that this That beautiful soul was gone.

What now?


We had never talked about it. Just as we had had no idea how he wanted to spend his last weeks, we equally had no idea what he wanted to happen at his funeral: who would carry his coffin, whether he wanted to be cremated or buried, or if he simply wanted his ashes scattered to the four winds. It was all a guessing game.


Why, on such an important matter, had we never actually asked Dad what he wanted. Somehow, I suppose, it would have confirmed our worst fear. That Dad, like all of us, was mortal. Somehow NOT talking about it perhaps might make it all go away. But it didn't. And all we could do was approximate.

Lisa Wilkinson
Lisa and Ray at Sydney Airport in 1986. "He was my rock."

We were not alone in our ignorance. To this day, families remain profoundly oblivious as to just how family members want the last Act of their lives to read.

In America, a guy by the name of Micheal Hebb, who is visiting Australia this week for National Palliative Care week, is leading the charge for Americans to have a family dinner and talk about death. That's right, call your nearest and dearest, and actually have a real conversation about the way you'd like to die. As you can see from this YouTube presentation, his reasons are very strong.

In America, he notes, no less than "62 percent of bankruptcies are caused by medical expense, and the leading factor in that, is end-of-life expense," as families squander life savings and more, trying to stave off the unstoppable. Is that actually what the dying person wanted? As he also notes, no fewer than 75 percent of Americans want to die at home, but only 25 percent do.

"How we end our lives," he says, "is the most important conversation Americans are not having."

And neither, I dare say, are we.

So, to rectify this crazy silence on the subject, he has launched a non-profit organisation called Death Over Dinner to promote families having this key conversation, where such crucial details can be provided. With his partners, Hebb has even provided a structure for how the conversation should go, of who you want invited, what areas you want covered, and what decisions have already been taken -- while also providing background information on how other families have dealt with it. The whole point is that it is not the Last Supper, but well before it, when key decisions can be made with a clear head. He estimates well over 100,000 such dinners have been held in 30 countries over the past three years since the movement was formally launched.

Broadly, Hebb believes three things should come out of the dinner.

1. What we want our final days to be like.

2. Who we want near us.

3. How loved ones can support the end-of-life wishes of those closest to them.

"It's our hope to spark the gentlest revolution imaginable," he says.

When Hebb personally attends such dinners he asks all present to "acknowledge a person who's no longer with us, somebody who had a positive impact on your life."

Going around the table, stories are told, toasts are made, and everyone remembers the departed person. The mood is set, for what is valuable in life... and in death. As the dinner proceeds, he asks the people present to consider such things as what they would do if they found out they had just 30 days to live.

"Are you at peace? How do you spend your time? Who's around you?"

For many, for probably the first time -- at least in public -- people must consider just what it is that they do want.

Quite simply, this is a conversation we should all be having.

And no need to be morbid. It should be a celebration. A realisation.

And maybe, like Hebb, you'll find that "looking at death, has taught me how to live".

Lisa Wilkinson
Raymond Wilkinson, 1921-1990.

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