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Celebrate Life

Time to change traditions? Or time to have [more?] conversations about options?

Photo of Rohena Round

Written by

My Father died unexpectedly, after a long battle with cancer.

Unexpected, because he had been so well that day. His former work colleagues shared lunch with him and my Mother at their home. Goodbyes had been said, when he suddenly fell and couldn’t get up. My Mother raced for those still at their cars who came and provided assistance. A while after that, an ambulance was called. He died that night, just after visiting hours…my Mother still thinking she would return the following morning with the clothing he’d requested.

He didn’t want to die in hospital; he didn’t want to die alone.

He did.

A funeral was held at the Crematorium for close family and family friends only, then all were welcomed to a Thanksgiving Service for him and his life. My brother, sister and I all spoke, sharing memories and aspects of him.

I told jokes. Well, related humorous stories about him, at any rate.

I explained that this would often be seen as unusual on such an occasion but, while traditions of respect are also important, it was a core part of him so to ignore it or pretend otherwise wasn’t real. I hoped I gave people permission to laugh, and also invited them to share a story if they had one. As I told the gathered people: ‘’…because if Dad was here now, he’d be sledging the lot of you!’’

Tears AND laughter, because that’s life. That’s reality.

Lives are meant to be enjoyed and then celebrated. And, yes, we miss people when they are gone. But, the classic statement: how tragic to never celebrate a person until they are gone! How tragic to never say what they mean to us; for them to never know how much we appreciated and loved them. How tragic to never speak of them again after their death, as if they…are on a long, extended overseas trip? As if they…never existed? As if they…and their life didn’t matter at all?

We want our lives to matter. We want to die surrounded by the ones we love. We mostly want to die in the comfort of home or something similar. How fantastic to be surrounded by the ones we love, knowing our lives matter, because they tell us and celebrate our lives while we are still here.

Some of us may have seen TV shows where a character wants to attend their own wake [food after the funeral, traditionally] and those in attendance are shocked by them suddenly appearing, having thought they had died.

Interestingly, when someone dies it is seen as significant to ‘’pay our respects’’…to travel long distances to be there and take time off work, if needed…for the funeral. Why not shift the importance and priority onto a Celebration of Life, before their death?

Some of the difficulties with a before-death celebration replacing the traditional one after-death, include:

  • What if the death is sudden with no warning? This can happen in many circumstances, resulting in a before-death celebration not being possible.
  • What if the death is so sudden and shocking that family and friends are unable to celebrate due to their shock and grief?
  • What if, in the same family, some are able to enjoy a celebration of their life while others miss out completely? Or some are strongly in favour while others disagree just as strongly? Does that breed difficulties?
  • When should the celebration be held? Even with ongoing terminal illnesses, it can be difficult to know the ‘’best’’ timing.
  • What if a date is planned, yet they die just before it? Or get significantly worse?
  • If we celebrate too early, what message are we giving the sick person?
  • Some would no doubt be offended at the suggestion, as it may seem that people want to speed their death/get it over with, already, and so on.
  • Does it square with the encouragement to ‘’stay positive’’?
  • The last thing some very sick people would want, would be a ‘’party’’ when they are feeling awful.

Perhaps it is more about the individual being able to express their preference and have their choice supported, than seeking to shift one tradition for another?

Perhaps a growing awareness and conversation is needed about what the options are and about individual preferences, and about who can assist make these preferences a reality at the chosen time?

If dying at home is a large priority for many, then surely that means more options of income-tested subsidised care need to be available? If it is less realistic perhaps the conversation needs to be centred on the loved ones being present more than the location?

Perhaps another conversation that has been needed for some time, is the one that centres on cost and affordability? People want to predominantly die at home and surrounded by their loved ones. There is no mention here of wanting to cause their family a financial burden, of needing to be buried in the latest and greatest coffin.

Starting and having conversations about death, dying and preferences therein is essential to be able to enjoy and celebrate life.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

*Perhaps it is more about the individual being able to express their preference and have their choice supported, than seeking to shift one tradition for another?

Tell us about your work experience:

Social Work: community development, aged and disability services, women's refuge, housing services.
Most recently: University Field Education, organising social work and community welfare placements.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Leigh

Hi Roh,  Our culture is definitely one which tends to avoid conversations about death.  We are also terrible about telling people how we feel about them until it's too late, and not only telling them, but showing them.  I fear that there is often quite a degree of guilt and regret felt by people at funerals (and presumably beyond).  
In terms of the pre-death celebration I think that can work if someone has one of those diseases with a reasonably defined end-date and they want to have a drink/meal with friends and family, share stories and memories and affirm the blessings of those relationships.  Even if that occurs (and I'm aware of a couple of people who have but not been to one myself), that doesn't replace the funeral and wake which is important to allow some time and space for grief. 
In non definable cases I think it's impossible to have such an event but that it is important to utilise those other milestones that occur during life, and if people are not in the habit of making them meaninful (most of us I'd suggest) then perhaps we need to look at turning those around. Even better, Gen X and following have largely lost the capacity for letter/card writing.  I would think many of us would say (well I do for myself) that a thoughtful paragraph in a card perhaps mentioning how I might have been involved in someone's life or encouraged them etc, is more meaningful and heartwarming than any material gift. 

In any case, yes I agree individuals should of course be able to choose to have a celebration of life while they are still around to enjoy it.  But I don't think it replaces the post-death things.  Pre-death celebration probably more for the person.  Post-death activities (funeral and wake) for the bereaved, not the deceased.

As for dying at home etc.  Yes most people wish to but few get to do it.  It's really tough on the family if they have to become like nurses administering medication such as a friend of mine did for her mother.  While there might be daily visits from community nurses etc, it's not enough if there is a need to increase pain med etc.  We would need to vastly improve the whole support structure for more people to be able to stay at home.  There's also then the question as to whether it makes spouse or other family members uncomfortable if someone has died at home.  That's part of our difficulty with dealing with the reality of death I suspect.

Those are the conversations also needing to be had I reckon. And perhaps that already happens within the scope of palliative care teams and their support, but if not perhaps it could be  ie they have a counsellor who assists individuals with their own choices and also facilitates conversations with partners and families so that helps prepare them all.

All the best with your studies!

Photo of Rohena Round

Thanks for your comment, Leigh. There's lots in there, and I think I agree with all you've said. So true, that the different ''moments'' have different purposes...the pre-death positive appreciation is definitely for the person while anything post-death is for those grieving and bereaved. I also agree one can't replace the other. That's where I get stuck though, of trying to imagine something different. Other posts have spoken about creating a type of memorial of stones, each stone representing a significant aspect of their loved one's life, and a labyrinth used for reflection and perhaps symbolic of the progression experienced by the person and family. Any other ideas that require greater services and more skilled personnel able to assist with palliative care or similar, would necessarily require an  insertion of funds. However funding is already limited and becoming more so. At this stage, I can't see serious illness, dying and death being treated with such increased priority that governments or even philanthropists would provide the level of funding needed to enable a complete change of system. As you say, the reality is that it's different for everyone. Cheers

Photo of Stuart Davey

Thanks for this article - it reminds me of the circumstances surrounding my grandmother's death. It was a very long and slow decline into Alzheimers and by the time death arrived we were all exhausted from the waiting. It was 10 years waiting for the inevitable. The celebration of her life was marked (overshadowed) by these final years; an earlier celebration would have marked her living years very differently. Had this tradition been available and acceptable for our family a more honouring celebration could have done. Their was grieving right throughout those alzheimers years and it was grief that could not be expressed or shared or acknowledged openly or healthily. 

Photo of Rohena Round

Thanks for your comment, Stu. It is awful, disappointing, sad,...all sorts of have to deal with the decline of a loved one into Alzheimers. I'm sorry to hear. I wonder how the person could be celebrated in such an instance...when and how would be appropriate? Such a difficult time, discussion with family, and decision.

Photo of Janelle Moxey

A really thought provoking piece Rohena. Not an easy conversation but definitely one worth having. My grandparents planned their funerals years before dying in the early days of their alzheimers diagnosis. This made it so much easier for my mother and made us as a family make our time together count. I wonder if telling someone of their impact on your life, as would be shared in a funeral/ wake situation, is necessary to be spoken publicly in a large formal gathering. Maybe there needs to be a shift in our thinking to not wait & to share it with them when opportunities present themselves. Or do we have the desire to share in front of others because it somehow makes us, those left, feel a little better in our grief? I'm grateful we, as a family, had time to prepare. 

Photo of Rohena Round

Thanks for your comment, Janelle. To have both parents or grandparents diagnosed with Alzheimer's would be devastating. So important that they let their preferences be known while they were able. 
I hear what you are saying re public appreciation...perhaps it's the personal time spent that is more appropriate/relevant/meaningful. And at a funeral or thanksgiving service, it is so much more an expression of us and our grief...perhaps it is about making every opportunity...all the time...whenever we can...

Photo of David Adams

I enjoyed reading this, Roh...Death is clearly a difficult experience to manage. My dear friend Garry preferred to be in hospital at the end, so his wife and children wouldn't have the memory of his final minutes, and then the time straight after he died, mixed up with their thoughts of home. I've often thought, since then, that this was a noble decision. However, who can tell which way of handling these things is best, until the time for making such choices comes?

Photo of Rohena Round

Thanks for your comment, David. It is so can we know what we will prefer until the time comes? I also wonder if it's about different types of people: there would be those able to immediately articulate what their preferences are, and many of them would no doubt hold fast to this  until their end of days. Of course, there would be others whose opinions would change over the years, and still others who would decide spontaneously, probably based on a huge variation of factors. 15-20 years ago I would have been quite certain of my preferred end-of-days, whereas now, after huge amounts of tumultuous change, so long as my children were present, or some at least, the other factors wouldn't be important...

Photo of christine smalley

Hi Roh, I never knew your father but get a little snippet of him from your heartfelt writing. I think it is really important to have that difficult conversation with our families early. It is through the sudden death of both my uncle in an accident and my grandpa, 5 weeks after a cancer diagnosis many years ago, that mum and dad wisely started to have that conversation. Some of their desires are very similar, whilst others have been vastly different but through it all, it has been a really positive experience for our family for the last 20 years. Thanks Roh for sharing.

Photo of Rohena Round

Thanks for your comment, Chris. So your parents have already decided and planned? And you and your siblings know and will be able to put those plans in place? That's amazing.

Photo of Glen Powell

A lovely article Rohena.  Every time I attend a funeral, I think it's a pity to only learn so much after someone has passed on.  It would be great to engage people's lives while they can still experience the positive impact they have made on the world.  

Photo of Rohena Round

Thanks for your comment, Glen. Is it the 'bottom line' of our capitalistic society that is set up to prevent us from often even having time/energy to do the real things? Or do you think it's just us, our choices? Or do you think our choices are almost unavoidable as we have to do certain things in order to survive? So does that mean it is ''society'', after all? Maybe rhetorical ruminations...