Why it’s healthy to talk about dying

By Ashley Porter

If you knew when you were going to die, would you do anything differently? If you would, why wait?

We attend classes to learn about birth, but apart from the recent debate prompted by Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying bill, general discussions about dying are rare.

Jane Melling was moved to share her views and experience about dying after the death of husband Joe, aged 55, who battled with cancer for four months. She hopes her story can help us all.

The mother of four was once a successful real estate agent. She describes her working life as constantly chasing the next listing and commission. This is Jane’s story, in her own words: 

“After Joe died in 2013, I thought, what’s life really all about? I was no longer happy going to work, so I handed in my notice. A few months later, I took on a job helping out at a funeral business. When the lady who was doing the mortuary work decided to leave, they asked if I was interested, and I was. I wanted to learn what happens after someone dies.

I went home and told the kids, and they said, ‘How gross’, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has been so satisfying.

I suppose for me, Joe’s death put a different perspective on how I looked at life, definitely. You realise how short life is and how things can happen in just one day. Helping at the mortuary helped me cope with Joe’s passing. It made me feel like I was doing something good, and it made me much more accepting of death as a fact of life. When you lose a partner, people don’t know what to say to you. ‘Oh, he’s in a better place,’ they say, ‘not suffering any more.’ Sometimes you feel like saying, ‘he’s not in a better place because I want him to be here.’

It’s the tried and tested sentences that people say, though they really do mean well. The first couple of weeks after it happens you get everyone around bringing food, but that’s when you don’t want everyone around, you don’t want to talk or see people. You go into yourself.

Eighteen months ago, someone said to me, ‘Oh, shouldn’t you be over it?’ Grief is different for everyone; for me, it made me appreciate life.

Everyone does the same thing, they go to work, have two or three weeks off – it’s a treadmill. Not any more for me. I grab life, enjoy it and appreciate it. I see things differently: how short life can be, how precious it is. I started seeing the blue skies and the stars again, and then I thought, ‘I wished I’d stopped and seen them when Joe was with me’.

I will always love Joe, but as someone once said, you are loving a dead person. They are correct. You have to accept the fact that for the rest of your life they are still part of you and you will love them, but you have to get to a stage where you want to get up in the morning.” 

Jane says the trauma is generally worse for families who haven’t talked about dying, and that

the task of identifying someone in a coffin can be more traumatic than the funeral. She promotes the logic that close family or friends need to know what a person’s wishes are: do they want to be buried or cremated?  Do they have a will?

“So many people don’t understand what happens when someone dies,” Jane explains. “Until it hits them between the eyes, they don’t actually look at it as a proper transition. They think, ‘Oh, someone has died and the funeral is next week’; it doesn’t compute. For example, their mum dies, and I ask the family to bring some clothes in for her. Some cannot understand why. It’s about making the person look as nice as possible. Dignity is so important.” 

These days Jane loves going to work. She loves helping bereaved families and the deceased. “Having been with Joe through his tough months and now working with death has made me far more assertive in believing that life is definitely too short,” she says. “It gets me out of bed every day, and as much as I still love Joe, life goes on. It must.” 

Can you talk openly with family and friends about dying?

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