In the Woods, Talking About Dying

I know, it’s an interesting title.

I almost used, “Talking about dying in the woods,” but in that context, you can see how word order and comma placement can make a big difference. ?

And yes, some may consider me a bit odd.

After all, not many people sit in their bathrobes and talk about Jesus.

And not many people carry a stool into the woods to sit and talk about dying.

But a few years ago, that’s what I did.

Actually, it wasn’t just one stool, but two: one for me and one for the tripod for my iPhone.

Plus the list of topics I wanted to cover about end of life.

Now and Then

Now, I’m mentioning it to you because a friend recently said he’d enjoyed watching my Dying Talks™ video series on my website.

Which reminded me that I’d never shared that journey about how I ended up in the woods on a stool with insects buzzing my head, sweat running down my back, and squinting against the sunshine as I talked to people about their final days.

It all started one day in church.

Well, actually, it all started with working in hospice, but that wasn’t what led me to the woods.

What led me to the woods was something that happened in a small community church we attended many years ago.

Then, I watched as a woman with aggressive stage 4 cancer stood weakly, yet patiently, as people came up and lovingly patted her arm to tell her everything would be okay.

I don’t remember if it was she who’d asked for prayer during the service, or someone else, but after going through a recent period of extensive treatments and a short time of remission, her cancer had come roaring back.

From my experiences with those types of scenarios, things didn’t sound good.

However, I sensed that the general sentiment and messaging was an assumption that she’d keep on fighting with everything she had left.

Of course, that was wonderful if that’s what she wanted to do.

But what if it wasn’t?

As I watched her pale, thin face try to smile through her exhaustion at those who paused to encourage her, a single thought kept running through my mind: “If she wanted to talk about dying, could she find the support to do that?”

Difficult Conversations

If you’re wondering, yes, I also stepped in to offer her encouragement, but mine was a little different than what she’d heard so far.

It was more of a reminder that she had the right to make her own choices about what she did and didn’t want instead of defaulting to what might seem expected of her.

And that if she wanted to talk about end-of-life stuff, it was okay to do that, too.

Of course, that was easier for me to say than others, since my time working in hospice meant that I’d had many such conversations with patients and families over the years.

But for those who haven’t had such exposure to death and dying, having those kinds of difficult conversations can be pretty tough.

This can be especially true if it’s a loved one we think we can’t bear to lose.

While all of that is understandable, an unfortunate consequence is that those who are facing end of life may have no one to talk with about everything they feel.

Instead, if they try to bring up something they want to discuss, what they may get instead is an everything’s-going-to-be-okay pat on the hand.

And what some may like to say in response is, “No. Everything is not going to be okay. I’m dying, and I’d like to talk about that.”

Dying Talks with Mom

I’ve written a lot about getting to be with my mom during the end of her life.

As her condition declined, we talked a lot about what was ahead—both in this life and the next.

Mom wasn’t afraid of dying, and she didn’t mind talking about it, either.

In fact, she looked forward to experiencing the joy of Heaven and all that awaited her there.

Her precious Savior, Jesus.

My dad.

Her sisters.

Her parents.

And everyone else she loved and who would be waiting with outstretched arms.

I knew my life would never be the same after my mom died, and it hasn’t been.

Losing someone like a mom just changes you, period.

But I have to say that we were able to really savor and cherish her final season—partly because we weren’t afraid to identify it as exactly that.

And in practical terms, being able to talk openly about it also helped to ensure that everything that needed to be addressed would be taken care of prior to her death—instead of me trying to sort through a mountain of tedious details in the midst of my acute grief.

As I’ve described when writing about the Golden Season™ at end of life, there’s something powerful about embracing the reality of the final season, instead of pretending it won’t happen or doesn’t exist.

Because when we do, when we’re able to embrace the space in which we talk about important things like dying, the season at end of life can be transformed from being a formidable and dreaded concept—to an expected and precious time within the circle of life.

Back to the Woods

Which leads me back to the woods and why I ended up talking about such things there.

About a year after Mom died, we moved to Ocala, FL—the beautiful “Horse Capital of the World”—to be closer to Dave’s family.

After we got settled into our country home, I kept encountering people with serious health conditions who wanted to talk about end of life and preparing for that.

Of course, I was quite happy to do so.

In addition, the website I was building at the time focused on what I refer to as the Boomer Continuum™ of agile caregiving, graceful aging, and peaceful dying.

The process of doing both frequently reminded me of the many end-of-life conversations I’d had with Mom.

And that woman in church.

And all the hospice patients I’d cared for who wanted to talk frankly about dying.

So, I decided to put together my Dying Talks™ series for all of them.

And to do it in a pretty setting like the woods because I know that many who are near end of life may not have the physical ability to get out and enjoy the beauty of nature.

So, that’s how I ended up tugging my two stools out of the trunk of my car and heading into the woods near our home so I could sit in the midst of God’s creation and talk about an important thing like dying.

Which, although sometimes difficult, isn’t a conversation we need to fear.

In fact, I believe that when we can talk more freely about dying, it gives us the perspective needed to really relish and embrace living.

Fortunately, there are growing efforts to help people step into the gift of talking about end of life—like those of a wonderful organization called The Conversation Project.

They offer some incredible resources to help initiate and support these critical conversations.

I’m so impressed with them that I actually signed up to be a Conversation Champion before my schedule filled and I realized I may need to hold off on that for a bit.

But I’ll continue to talk about end-of-life planning for anyone who’s willing to engage—and to talk about dying itself for anyone who wants to go there, too.

Because sometimes we wait too long to have these conversations.

And because every day is a gift that none of us should take for granted.

P.S. …

If you know someone who could benefit from my series of Dying Talks™, please share them.

And if you know someone who is facing end of life, but don’t know what to say, you’re not alone.

Many people feel helpless in such situations and may avoid the person instead of facing their own discomfort.

However, instead of avoidance, consider how you might feel and what you might need if the tables were turned.

And remember that what matters most is your loving support—which may start with a simple question: “How can I help?”

This post is adapted from Sue’s Perspectives column in the latest edition of The Empowered Traveler™ Newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can do that here: Subscribe to Sue’s newsletter.

Sue Montgomery is a Christian writer/content creator who's also been a hospice nurse, family caregiver, health coach, and professional organizer. Now she's helping Baby Boomers like herself embrace the Boomer Continuum™ of agile caregiving, graceful aging, and peaceful dying—with Christian faith and simplicity to focus on what matters most.
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