Why Talking About Death Might Help You Live a Better Life

“Everybody’s going to come across it. It’s a matter of when and where and how.”

Eighty percent of Americans want to die at home but only 20 percent do. Most spend their final weeks in hospitals or nursing homes. As a society, we dedicate a lot of money to providing people with an end of life they don’t actually want. For example, about 25 percent of Medicare’s spending is for individuals’ last year of life.

Clearly, death is something we should be talking about. So why is it that we’ll do almost anything to avoid it?

At the 2018 Fortune Brainstorm HEALTH conference on Tuesday, a panel of passionate advocates for a more open discourse on the subject of mortality, moderated by Thrive Global Founder and CEO Arianna Huffington, explored the importance of eliminating the stigma around discussing death.

“Talking about death is not a morbid thing,” said Michael Hebb, founder of Death Over Dinner, a non-profit organization that gathers people around a dinner table to discuss death. “We’ve turned it into this medical act. We’ve sterilized and separated ourselves from death, but when we discuss death, what we’re talking about is life.”

Not only does the conversation surrounding death reveal our vulnerability, it also has the ability to deeply connect us as human beings, Hebb explained. The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, director of the Ethics Initiative at MIT Media Lab, agreed, adding that death is a “great equalizer,” as it comes for all of us regardless of gender, race or net worth.

Priyadarshi also expressed concern about increasing loneliness among people nearing the end of their lives. “We live in a society of seven billion human beings,” he said. “Loneliness should be the last thing on our mind at this stage.”

In terms of how to initiate an end of life conversation with patients or loved ones, Hebb suggested approaching it the same way you would a love interest — with creativity and “a kind of playfulness.”

Priyadarshi maintained that death is the “one experience that nobody can deny,” despite society’s growing desire to achieve immortality through modern technology. “Everybody’s going to come across it,” he said. “It’s a matter of when and where and how.”

Moving forward, Hebb said we should strive to be just as literate about death as we are about anything else. “Just because [death is] mysterious does not imply that we should be fearful of it,” Priyadarshi said. 

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