Talking About Death Won’t Kill You is a surprisingly uplifting read

Don’t like talking about death? You’re not alone

You’re going to die. Are you ready?

Okay, my friend, I’m sorry that was abrupt. It’s truly okay if you feel like you’re not ready. I get it! You might need to do a bit of thinking about this, or a bit of reading, and there will always be time later …

That’s about how I felt a few months ago, too, before I found this book.

I committed to reading this book fully on page 11, where death educator and palliative care worker Kathy Kortes-Miller states her intentions for writing Talking About Death Won’t Kill You.

“It is my profound hope that it will galvanize you, the reader, to recognize that dying and death are an integral part of life and living, and that by learning about it and talking about it, you and those you love will ultimately live fuller lives.”

I was tentative at first, but Kortes-Miller’s intentions resonated with me so deeply that I dropped my fears on page 11 and raced through the rest of the slim volume in one weekend. Then, I had to go back and read it again, more slowly.

Looking under the surface of death

Yes, thinking about death brings up sadness. But when you can stay on the topic of death for a little longer — like, long enough to read a book twice — it’s refreshing to realize there are layers and layers of feelings about death, and not all of the feelings are sad. There’s also love, gratitude, hope, to name just a few feelings that washed over me — intensely — as I was reading this book.

Hope was a big one.

I hope to help my friends and family members die how they choose, with access to comfort and connectedness in their own dying process. I hope I can I have some control over my own death. I hope to be near the people I love most. I hope to have access to nature, music, and poetry until my very last moment. I hope to be remembered.

The aftertaste of Talking About Death was the feeling of being uplifted. I was lighter, more aware of time, more loving and expressive with my family, more acutely aware of the fleeting nature of life.

So for a few weeks now, I’ve been bringing up this book in conversation with friends. “I’ve been reading this book about death,” I say.

Not surprisingly, no one has asked to borrow it.

Now, I don’t want to be a book pusher, but I do want my friends and family to read Talking About Death. So we can be together in our mortality, with watery eyes and full hearts.

Practical tips

In Chapter Four, Kortes-Miller directly writes about talking about death with kids. I was rapt during this chapter. I know the time is going to come, and I want to be prepared with accurate, specific words and meaningful-to-a-kid analogies.

There is even a glossary in this section, which explains the terminology of death in all-ages language. As a mom, I might not think about explaining the words palliative, cremation, urn, eulogy, viewing, as they come up, to a kid. But for a young person experiencing death for the first time, unfamiliar language can be overwhelming and confusing. Providing vocabulary is an important part of helping them to express their feelings.

This section also explains how we make death a confusing experience for young people by using vague language. Kortes-Miller tells the heartwrenching story of a boy whose mother had died of cancer when he was in Grade 1. It had been explained to him that his mother had “passed.” When it came time for reports at the end of the school year, he felt scared that everyone was going to “pass.” More accurate terminology could have been very helpful for this little person.

Kortes-Miller’s basic point in this chapter is to include children in conversations about death. They are curious. They deserve to know. They can handle it. So can you.

Death has changed

As with many contemporary cultural rites, death has changed. Technological advances and the internet have changed everything, and the rites we have inherited from our ancestors may not seem appropriate or useful today.

Early in her book, Kortes-Miller explains the how our culture’s treatment of death has changed over time because of technology. Medical technology has meant that death often happens in hospitals, rather than in homes. This means death can be isolating experience, and also that patients are denied the opportunity to die at home and interact freely with loved ones in their last moments.

Later, she writes about dying in a digital world. Our cultural expectations and behaviours around dying have changed radically in the age of social media. She devotes an entire chapter to addressing this topic. I found it incredibly helpful.

“We’re still navigating the waters around dying, death, grief and loss online,” writes Kortes-Miller. She explains the etiquette of acknowledging the death of a loved one on social media, as well as how to respond when someone else makes a digital death announcement.

Kortes-Miller explains how social media profiles of loved ones can be a posthumous place for a community to grieve. Profiles can become a sort of memorial. Some people embrace this, while others find it jarring when they come across an online profile of someone they’ve known who has died.

It can feel uncomfortable to discuss these topics at first.  It feels somehow superficial to put death in a digital context. Maybe because it seems impossible to summarize what a loved one meant to you in a Facebook post.

But the author notes that it’s important to get past the discomfort to open discussion about death. This will allow you to make some explicit requests about how your digital legacy will — or won’t — be preserved.

Kortes-Miller advises making discussion of your online demise a standard part of the larger death-planning process. Just as you would make decisions about your estate, so should you make decisions about your website.

Finding a new way

This book challenged me to imagine a future in which I don’t fear my own death, or the deaths of my loved ones. 

By talking about death more openly, and by thinking about it in a more open-minded way, we can heal our relationship with the spectre of not-being. Maybe death will become less scary, less taboo, less tragic.

Maybe we’ll even find it in our hearts to welcome it someday.


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