By Melodie Veldhuizen
Whether or not you are a believer, one thing is certain – all of us will die someday. Death is not a topic anyone likes to discuss, especially not the death of a spouse. You may think about it in passing, especially when you read a news item or hear about the death of friends or family. But have you and your spouse ever discussed this delicate issue? Talked about what will become of my loved one when I die? Will she be well cared for? Or about my wishes when I am no longer able to make my own decisions?
Why do spouses hesitate to discuss this matter?
There could be a variety of reasons.
- Denial and fear of the unexpectedness of the body dying. Even when a loved one is dying, one or both of you might believe there is still a chance of recovery and that the opportunity will still exist to talk about death.
- There is the thought: ‘We are still young and healthy and have a long life ahead of us and needn’t worry about it just now’.
- Lovelessness or a happy-go-lucky attitude towards the surviving spouse who will experience a lot of inconvenience due to being unprepared and uninformed.
- Distrust, aloofness or a breakdown of the marital relationship.
- One or both parties hope that the adult children or other family members will take care of the surviving spouse.
- One or both parties aren’t yet ready to die – among others due to religious uncertainty, inner conflict or unfinalized issues such as conflict with children, parents, other family members or friends.
- One or both parties have never relished talking about their emotions or matters of the heart and therefore don’t wish to talk about death.
- Fear that you will upset one another.
- Fear of saying the wrong thing.
- The unknown makes you feel you are no longer in control of affairs.
When is the best time to talk to one another about this topic?
Not only the elderly die and not everyone dies after a long sick bed. Death often comes unexpectedly in the guise of a car accident, a murder, suicide, drowning, a heart attack, of even due to negligence. And it visits young and old. This is why the best time for discussion is as soon as possible. Preferably don’t wait until one of you is already on the death bed. It could be that one of the spouses has for a long time felt the need to discuss it, but wondered how to broach the subject.
How do you start such a conversation?
The key to discussing this delicate issue is to convert the unknown/unavoidable into a controlled known. The fear of the unknown and to not be in control are sufficient reasons to discuss this matter. In this way uncertainty about many issues are removed and both of you can feel that at least you have a measure of control.
Vorster Combrink, a counsellor at ABBO, explains it as follows, “Communication comes from the heart (thoughts about yourself, your partner, God, life, life after death, etc.). If our thoughts are shaped and renewed by the Holy Spirit with the Word, there should be no hesitancy to discuss this matter. If one or both spouses know the Lord personally, the Holy Spirit will guide them in this with soberness, candour and wisdom.”
The person who wishes to broach the subject could begin with a ‘head conversation’. With this reflection about the matter, you clear up for yourself what precisely is lying heavy on your heart, what you wish to discuss and what your opinion and even your wishes are.
The ideal is to first talk in general about the unexpectedness of death, with as starting point a news item about someone who has died, or the tidings of the death of a friend or family member. Mention casually that you wonder how the loved one who stays behind is feeling, and if they ever talked to each other about death, or wondered how the one would go one with his/her life without the other. Ask your spouse’s opinion in this regard. If you realise that he/she is not yet ready to talk about death, don’t insist in an in-depth discussion, but ask if your loved one will listen if you want to share your thoughts with him/her. In this way you sow the seed, which could possibly give him/her food for thought. Assure him/her that you will listen when he/she is ready to talk.
What should we talk about?
There are various matters which spouses should discuss to ensure mutual peace of mind. It’s not necessary to touch on all these topics during the first conversation. It is emotionally exhausting, which is why is would be preferable to have various consecutive conversations in this regard. Try to keep the conversations as informal as possible, in cosy surroundings where both of you feel at ease. The more you talk about this, the easier it should become on an emotional level.
Following are some of the topics that should be touched upon. They can be supplemented and will also differ according to your personal circumstances and needs.
- Where will the surviving spouse (and our minor children) live after my death?
- Will my loved one (and our minor children) be cared for financially?
- Will the surviving spouse be able to depend on our adult children or other family for assistance/support? What if the children are uninvolved or our only child lives overseas?
- Do we have a valid will?
- What about a living will in which wishes to not be kept alive with life-supporting apparatus, or that your organs be donated, are stipulated? Would you (in the case of a terminal illness) wish to die at home or in the hospital?
- Funeral: Do you know if your spouse’s wish is to be buried or cremated? What must you do with his/her ashes? What is his/her favourite Bible text that must be read during the service? Who must be notified when he/she dies? These are some of the practical issues that you have to clarify.
- Sensitive issues may also come up, such as unfinished business (unforgiveness between you about certain matters, but also between a spouse and children or parents). Encourage your loved one to make peace.
- Faith issues: Is my spouse ready to die?
It is essential that you listen attentively to what your loved one tells you, that you be sensitive to emotional context, not be derogatory or nonchalant and show understanding of his/her feelings and wishes, even if you yourself are not yet ready to talk.
How often should we talk without either of us getting morbid?
This will depend on your personal needs and situation.
Vorster puts it as follows, “If the subject is discussed with a true belief in Jesus Christ and out of caring for one another, there should be no morbidity. If it should occur, it is an opportunity to expose the false root pertaining thereto and to address it.”
Also read the following articles:
It’s OK to Die. https://www.oktodie.com/preparation-checklists/3-resources/4-planning-your-death
It’s OK to Diehttps://www.oktodie.com/pdf/deathofalovedone1227.pdf
Dying Matters. https://www.dyingmatters.org/page/TalkingAboutDeathDying
Vorster Combrink. Head: Counselling Services (ABBO). email@example.com; www.abbo.org.za