What should we do?

#4 Find better
ways to talk
about death

The pandemic is forcing us to change direction, to rethink what we do
and how we do it.

We ask our experts:
where should we go from here?

Find better ways to
talk about death

by Dr Laura Davies

COVID-19 has forced millions of people to confront the prospect of dying earlier than they expected and under extraordinary circumstances. Now more than ever we need to find ways to talk about death suggests Laura Davies, from the Faculty of English.

Death has come to our families and communities with unexpected speed and scale as a result of COVID-19. At the time of writing, over 860,000 people globally have died and the crisis looks anything but over.

No death is easy but the ongoing pandemic has wrought an especially cruel twist. Visiting dying loved ones in hospital has been limited, last moments shared through a phone call or a video chat, hugging at funerals banned. Facing the end of life has moved more prominently into view.

Is this the time to find better ways to talk about death?

As a society, we’ve wrestled with the provision of social and palliative care, had arguments around euthanasia, and raised concerns about mental health support following bereavement. And we’ve also thought about the concept of a ‘good’ death – ideas on this were already present in public debate with some degree of urgency before the COVID-19 crisis and have a long cultural history.

"Our aim is to help people to think and talk about human mortality in a reflective rather than a reactive way."
Dr Laura Davies

What do we mean by a good death? National Health Service guidelines frame a good death in relation to managing pain, preserving dignity, and meeting the needs and wants of the patient and, where possible, those close to them.

In practice, however, articulating such thoughts and having them fully heard can be hard and often frightening. When a person does not have a meaningful conception of what, for them, a good death might be, or when they lack the vocabulary with which to express it, or the confidence to do so, it can be even more so. By the time a person is facing their own death, the kind of conversation that can be had about it is already limited.

Tackling these issues is a key focus of the ‘A Good Death?’ project we have been running in Cambridge for the past two years. We explore how historical and literary ideas of death can help us to reflect on dying well today.

Thinking about death in the midst of life

The need for resources to support the general public, the sick and dying, and those who care for them or are bereaved, has accelerated and intensified. Our aim is to help people to think and talk about human mortality in a reflective rather than simply a reactive way. This is where the humanities and arts can play a vital role.

The literature of previous centuries contains a rich and diverse mass of vocabularies and conceptual frameworks (theological, artistic, spiritual, medical, domestic, practical, economic) through which people have thought and written about death.

Like us, the authors of these works suffered, grieved and experienced physical and psychological pain. We believe that important insights have been lost as these texts have faded from wider public knowledge.

That’s where our project comes in. Our aim is not to promote a single version of an ‘ideal death’ – and we don’t believe that the circumstances of individual deaths can always be changed. As has become increasingly apparent over recent months, access to healthcare varies enormously across the world, and there are significant global divergences in causes of death, experiences of dying and other public health concerns that need to be addressed.

These medical aspects are not our area of expertise. But through our public events, workshops designed for practitioners – such as bereavement counsellors and hospice workers – and our creative collaborations and online resources, we can open up new conversations and explore how words and images can influence attitudes to and even experiences of death.

Prompted by unfamiliar literary texts by diverse writers, and by objects and creative writing activities, we guide participants in our workshops, events and online to reflect in new ways on matters that have a long history but which are pressingly significant today: dying at home, in hospital or alone, the experience of pain or fear, and the nature of ‘care’.

“We believe that thinking and talking about death should begin in the midst of life.”
Dr Laura Davies

Through a collaboration with writer Patrick Morris and Menagerie Theatre Company, we have most recently created three original audio dramas to explore, through personal stories, some of the swirling mass of questions and emotions that the pandemic has generated. Written and recorded during lockdown, and available on our website, Seven Arguments with Grief, End of Life Care – A Ghost Story and A Look, A Wave are short but intense glimpses into experiences of bereavement, hospital care, and of a final deathbed goodbye.

Credit: Audio drama written by Patrick Morris, Menagerie Theatre Company.

Rather than demanding answers or decisions, the encounters we offer through literature and the arts with this most fundamental of human experiences foster confidence in facing fears and expressing opinions, throw preconceptions into relief, and make deep thinking possible by putting our imaginations to work.

Where should we go from here?

Thinking about how our research translates into useful suggestions for talking better about death better is at the core of our work. Ideas for how to do this will be multiple and varied but, in the light of the pandemic, we think these are among the priorities:

Acknowledge the suffering COVID-19 is causing. Recognise that its impacts are not being shared equally and work to tackle this. Find ways for individuals, families and communities to tell their stories of struggle, survival and loss, now and in the years to come.

Normalise conversations about death within our personal relationships. This means taking steps to raise the topic, and to think about our beliefs and wishes and those of our loved ones, before we are forced to by illness or crisis. 

Reflect on and deepen our own thoughts and feelings about death by actively exploring literature and the arts. When we read, hear or view something new, or return again to an old favourite, we open ourselves up to different perspectives and gain insight into the complexity of human experience. We can find language too to help us to find the right words to conceptualise and communicate what we think and feel.

Ask questions. Philosophical, Practical, Spiritual, Medical. Stopping to think about why certain practices and attitudes around death and dying exist in our diverse communities helps us to understand the vast array of different ways humans have used to face the fact of our mortality. Even more importantly, it can show us where there is room for change and improvement, whether that be in our own lives, in professional practice or training, or at the level of institutional and governmental policy.

Dr Laura Davies leads the interdisciplinary ‘A Good Death?’ project based in the Faculty of English. Her wider research focuses on 18th-century British literature with a particular interest in life writing. She is a Fellow of King’s College.

Workshop for volunteers and professionals
Are you part of an organisation, company or volunteer group whose work relates to death or to dying well? Or perhaps the COVID-19 crisis has made you or those you work with think differently about death?

The Good Death Project runs facilitated group workshops for volunteers and professionals who support the dying, their families, or the recently bereaved. Through a series of practical activities, the workshops provide an open but supportive space for the widening of perspectives, vocabularies or strategies for thinking and talking about death, dying and grief, and to tune-in to what clients and patients may be articulating. There is no charge for workshops, which are currently being run online.


Editor: Tom Almeroth-Williams
Artwork: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh

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