A New Survey Suggests Most Americans Want to Talk About Death and Dying
A new survey helps explain why Americans avoid talking about death and dying
A new survey from the Conversation Project sheds light on the extent to which Americans avoid discussing death and their end-of-life wishes. Interestingly, the data indicates that only 30 percent of Americans have the conversation but that a majority of Americans — 90 percent to be exact — think it’s important to discuss their loved ones’ wishes for end-of-life care and death. How do we bridge this gap between the social stigma related to death and the necessity to address the topic head-on? After all, a single conversation can prevent heartache and regret in the future by equipping loved ones with the knowledge they need to be financially confident and emotionally prepared once the time has come.
Perhaps the answer lies in the reasons Americans avoid such discussions. According to the survey, the top reason for not discussing end-of-life and death sooner is because people don’t think they need to worry about it at this point. But the truth is, none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
Based on my own observation and discussions with families, here are some additional reasons I think people avoid the discussion.
Common reasons we avoid discussing end-of-life, death, and dying
Although America has never embraced the aging process, our culture has become increasingly youth obsessed in recent years. Each 10-year milestone that could be viewed as an achievement is instead often dreaded. Not many people are thrilled to turn 50, 40, or even 30. One look at the magazines lining checkout isles tells us that youth is often valued over wisdom and experience.
For many, death is synonymous with old age. When we open up and talk about death, we are also acknowledging the inevitable aging process, complete with deteriorating health and the physical changes to our bodies.
We can avoid this negative outlook, which may create apprehension when opening up about death, by adopting a more positive view on aging. A lifetime journey of experience is priceless, and if we learn to value this, we will have a much happier life and will be more open to talking about death.
Our identity is comprised of many things, including the people in our lives. When it comes to discussing the death of a loved one, we are in fact discussing a possible change in our own sense of self. If a parent dies, for instance, we are suddenly “the person who has a parent who is dead.” We are different than we were when he or she was alive. Although synthesizing this fact over our lives can help ease the transition when the time comes, for most, the thought is paralyzing enough the keep the important talk at bay.
People generally avoid thinking about loss as much as possible. The loss of a job, a friend, or a marriage are not aspects of life many people want to ruminate over more than necessary. It is easy to understand, then, why discussing the death of a loved one has been elevated to an almost taboo status. After all, why would we want to imagine a world where are loved ones are no longer present if we don’t have to?
Additionally, some people feel that merely thinking such negative thoughts could cause those negative events to happen. The problem with that line of thinking though is that it often leaves the discussion off the table until it’s too late.
The importance of having those difficult discussions
Although hard and uncomfortable, the benefits of having a conversation about death and end-of-life wishes outweigh the costs. According to the survey, most people who have lost a loved one without ever discussing end-of-life wishes feel that some aspect of the experience could have been improved if they’d had a conversation. Plus, those who did have such a conversation had a more positive experience in their loved ones’ final days: 63 percent said they felt better knowing they were honoring the wishes of their loved ones, while 39 percent said they knew their loved one was able to die just the way they wanted.
So why not talk about end-of-life, death, and dying today?
If you’re nervous about broaching the topic with a loved one, perhaps you need not worry. According to the survey, one-fifth of Americans who haven’t broached the subject are waiting for their loved ones to bring the topic up first. And nearly half of Americans say that if a loved one asked them about their wishes for end-of-life care, they’d welcome it and be relieved to discuss it. Another 41 percent admit that while it would be a difficult discussion to have, they’d be willing to do it.
So, what are you waiting for? We’ll even help you get started: take a look at our comprehensive end-of-life planning checklist.
Nicholas Kania works in marketing for Cleveland, Ohio-based eFuneral, an online resource providing caregivers and those thinking about end-of-life with free, helpful information.