Death and denial – one more thing before you go…

11/10/2020

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Mark Twain

Death is a fact of life for every one of us. We are all mortals and will pass from this world to the next at some stage. However, death is considered a ‘taboo’ subject since we generally don’t want to face our own mortality. Most people find it too emotionally confronting, so denial, whether conscious or unconscious, is a coping mechanism around a topic that doesn’t get thought about much, let alone discussed. 

The truth around death then becomes buried, repressed, denied, rejected, unspoken; which can continue right up until ‘end of life’ processes are taking their natural course. The elderly in particular, even when in palliative care, can be overly optimistic about their life expectancy and may consider their death to be ‘many years’ down the track – if at all.

Childhood conditioning

Denial of death can also stem from childhood experiences which are then carried over into adulthood. In the case of a child, say, having an alcoholic parent and the issue isn’t discussed even though the family know, then the issue gets ‘swept under the rug.’ The alcoholic doesn’t received help, and the issue becomes minimised, excused and deflected especially when conversations closely approach that dangerous territory. Denialism then is normalised and permeates a person’s life from then on.

As a consequence, going into adult relationships can become fraught with issues when difficult situations arise and the truth needs to be faced, such as a partner lying and cheating. Denial is not only irrational thinking, it leads to the potential of living in a fantasy world, creating obstacles, resistance and stagnancy. 

Acceptance:

The other side of the denial coin is acceptance. If we accept the reality that we are all going to die, then our perceptions aren’t inaccurate, and we acknowledge what exists without resistance. We understand that some situations are within our control, and some are not. Death, it goes without saying, is not.

When we accept, we peacefully co-exist with life, it’s natural cycles, and it’s ups and downs. It doesn’t mean we give in or give up, or ignore what’s happening. So, having honest, open, authentic conversations with loved ones, especially surrounding impending death, will assist in facilitating what comes next. In denial, none of this can occur.

Therefore, as we age and approach death, it is important to face reality and make your wishes known to those who could have control over what happens to you in your last months, weeks, days or possibly hours. Obviously a Will is necessary, but an Enduring Guardianship – which is someone you appoint to make lifestyle, health and medical decisions for you when you are not capable of doing this for yourself is helpful. Even an, ‘Advance Care Directive’ (‘Living Will’) which clearly states for loved ones what treatment you would like and under what circumstances is also highly desirable. Although it won’t save a person’s life, it may help them to have a better death.

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