As the digital manager at Independent Age, I’ve been very involved with the digital output of our campaign #TalkAboutDeath.
The crux of the campaign is to encourage individuals of all ages to talk about death. We’ve published stories from a number of amazing people about their experiences. Ron wrote about losing Bob, his partner of over 40 years during a time when they often had to hide their love.
Psychologist Corinne Sweet described how people she talks to in therapy often regret not having had conversations with their relatives – a source of pain some find it difficult to recover from.
Julia Samuel, writer and godmother to Prince George, explained many of us avoid the subject through an irrational fear that talking about death makes it more likely to happen.
Yet despite all the inspirational messages, and having read and published each article, I haven’t been brave enough to have the conversation myself. Until now.
My grandparents are in their mid-nineties. My grandfather is quite physically incapacitated these days and my grandmother looks after him as best she can at the age of 95. Their situation is far from ideal and I worry about them.
In the past, and to my regret, I’ve actually shut my grandmother down when she’s tried to talk to me about the end of life. At the time I thought I was trying to keep her spirits up. In reality I was probably protecting myself – avoiding the thought that one day she won’t be there anymore.
At the weekend I drove over to their house with my three-year-old, their great-grandson. I didn’t go explicitly to have the conversation, but it had been at the back of my mind for a while.
We sat and chatted for a while then the conversation turned to music.
I took the plunge.
The moment of truth
“Do you know” I said, “nobody ever talks about the music they’d like at their funeral.”
“I think it’s a wasted opportunity.”
Then I told them what I would pick, Lux Aeterna by Elgar – the choral version of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. My family have always sung in choirs and we love sacred music.
My grandmother said she would like something beautiful played on the church organ. We listened to a couple of different pieces via YouTube on my smartphone. She settled on a work by Poulenc, but told me she didn’t want a choir as she only wants immediate family in the chapel – a second thing I would have never known if we hadn’t braved the conversation.
My grandfather surprised me by choosing a piece of music I wouldn’t have expected. His parents were Russian and I assumed he would have wanted something Slavonic. Instead he chose a light-hearted piece by Purcell, Rejoice in the Lord Alway.
As we talked he smiled. I could see he was a little emotional, but there was no hint of regret. I think he was slightly overcome with a sense of relief from telling somebody.
When I left, I felt as though a weight had been lifted. I’d done it. It wasn’t hard, it was actually a really pleasant and easy conversation. We even enjoyed it.
I hope my grandparents live for many more years. But now, when the time comes, I know the music that will play them out. It’s bittersweet, but also a blessing. I feel a huge sense of relief that I finally found the courage to have the conversation.
If you haven’t, I recommend you do too.
Independent Age is an older people’s charity. Find out more and order our free advice guides, Planning for the End of Life, and Coping with Bereavement.