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Preparing For Death Is An Act Of Love: A Guide to Conversations About Death

by Darnell Lamont Walker 

Growing up, I spent most of my free time at my grandma Irene Jones’ home, which means I also spent a lot of time around old folks, watching how they argued amicably while they played spades, tonk, and pitty pat, learning nuances of a language I was still mastering, and listening to the words they threw around the room about life, heartache, and what storefronts were where when they were growing up – all shouted over Deniece Williams, Ben E. King, and Otis Redding. As I grew older, fewer card players showed up to the table and my grandma went to more and more funerals. Death was no stranger and the conversations around it were always about how ill prepared for that big moment the dead and their family were. I remember wondering why none of the people around the card table talked about what they knew was coming. “Wouldn’t it make it easier for them and their family,” I asked myself. 

In my grandmother’s living room, my early concept of death was shaped. It was a simple, linear narrative. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and eventually my parents would pass away. Then me. An order I thought was set in stone. Only the old died, I thought. However, life has a way of challenging our assumptions. The loss of a childhood friend shattered the illusion to which I held so tightly, and over the years, the reality of death had become more complex. There is no order. I’ve likely lost more friends than my parents. My grandmother and most of her friends are gone, but some are still here. Being a death worker now, I want to lessen the complexities. I want to find ways to make the conversations those old folks weren’t having around the card table easier – conversations that would have prepared them and their families for their death. It’s beyond time. Open and honest discussions about death are means to living a fuller, more intentional life. 

We’re all too familiar with the discomfort and silence that swell and fill our spaces when death joins the conversations. However, addressing the inevitable can be a powerful tool for fostering connection and understanding among family and friends. By opening up about our wishes, fears, and expectations surrounding death, we not only prepare for self, but it can ease the burden on our loved ones when the time comes.

On November 16, 2023, Darnell spoke at the End Well 2023: It’s About Time Symposium. Darnell’s talk was about his work as a Death Doula and a Children’s Television writer and the intersection where these two meet.

Preparing for one’s own death may seem daunting, but the benefits extend beyond the individual. It’s a gift to those we leave behind, offering clarity during a challenging time and ensuring that our wishes are honored. Moreover, the process of contemplating our mortality can be transformative, prompting us to reevaluate our priorities and live more authentically.

We can’t keep celebrating the home goings if we approach them with so much fear. We have to talk. Until we open up, we will continue making death harder on those we leave behind as well. It can all be so sensitive, so it’s important to approach these conversations with empathy and care. Here are questions you can ask today to those you love:

Personal Reflection:

  • Have you thought about your own end-of-life preferences and wishes?
  • What are your values and beliefs surrounding death and dying?
  • Are there specific cultural or religious practices you would like to observe?
  • What songs or poems would you like played or sang at the end of your life and at your funeral?
  • If you died tomorrow, did you do most of the things you’ve wanted to do?

Medical Preferences:

  • Do you have an advance directive or living will in place? If not, have you considered creating one?
  • What are your thoughts on life-sustaining treatments, and are there specific medical interventions you would want or not want?
  • Where do you want to die? At home or in the hospital or a special place?

Funeral and Memorial Plans:

  • Do you want to be buried, cremated, turned into much, thrown into the ocean, or what?
  • Have you considered your funeral or memorial service preferences?
  • What must be included in your obituary?
  • Is there a specific location you would like your final resting place to be?
  • Are there cultural or religious rituals you would like to be part of your funeral?

Legal and Financial Matters:

  • Do you have a will in place, and if so, is it up to date?
  • Have you discussed your financial affairs with a trusted individual, such as a family member or lawyer?
  • Are there specific instructions regarding your estate, assets, or debts that you want to ensure are followed?
  • Have you talk to the bank to ensure the money will be easily accessible to the person in charge of your funeral in order to prevent financial hardship for them?

Legacy and Personal Belongings:

  • Is there a message or legacy you would like to leave for your loved ones?
  • Have you thought about what you want to happen to your personal belongings after you pass away?
  • Are there specific sentimental items you would like to pass on to certain individuals?
  • What do you want to happen to your social media accounts?

Emotional and Spiritual Well-being:

  • Are there unresolved issues or relationships you would like to address before the end of your life?
  • How would you like to be emotionally supported as you approach the end of life?
  • Are there spiritual or religious practices that bring you comfort, and would you like those to be incorporated into your end-of-life care?

These are questions I wish I was able to ask my grandma, but I’m thankful I am now able to ask those I love, young and old, because truly, we don’t know when or how we’re leaving this place. I’ve watched them take in these questions and use them as fuel on their journeys toward happiness. Confronting our mortality isn’t about dwelling on the end; it’s about living with purpose and intention. The knowledge that our time is finite can motivate us to cherish moments, strengthen relationships, and pursue the things that truly matter. By preparing for death, we empower ourselves to shape the narrative of our lives and leave a legacy that aligns with our values.

Especially In African American households and relationships, it’s time to break the silence surrounding death and embrace the conversations that can lead to a more connected and purposeful existence. By asking ourselves and our loved ones the tough questions, we not only prepare for the inevitable but also enrich our lives with meaning and intention. Preparing for death is an act of love a gift we give ourselves and those we hold dear.

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