Death, driving and competence
This week is Death Awareness week, and I went to a Death Cafe. I’ve taken part in several of these over the last couple of years. DCs simply provide an opportunity for people to meet and talk about death. In the one I attend you gather round small tables for the first half of the evening, and then get into a wider circle for the second half. The conversation can be about people’s fear of death, or about their need to process past experiences (though it is explicitly not a therapy session); or it may just take a direction of its own, according to what the participants bring to the table.
Some people come because they’ve been afraid of death since childhood; others because someone close to them is terminally ill. We’ve had terminally ill people themselves attend. Last time I listened to a woman talk about her near-death experience and her ‘choice’ to return from it; she spoke in an entirely cheerful and matter of fact way, and I could not doubt her experience, though I couldn’t agree with the conclusions she drew from it. There is quite often a lot of laughter. Almost all participants say how much easier it is to talk about death with strangers.
Women are always in the majority. This week’s meeting saw me as the sole man present. The imbalance is predictable. To mark the Death Awareness week, an organisation called Dying Matters has brought out a report on the extent to which people talk about death. On almost every dimension women were better informed (e.g. about living wills), and had held more conversations about death and dying. This extended even to financial arrangements. Although slightly more men had made a will, more women had actually discussed finance with their families.
I’m convinced that managing the process of dying ourselves is one of the big challenges for my generation. I’m 67, and almost every one of my peers has had either a parent, a partner’s parent or someone else finish their lives in an unsatisfactory and excessively prolonged fashion. It was true in my case, with my mother dying aged 98 having lived 3 or 4 years too long (for her sake – not ours). We are the first generation to have this generalised experience, and so to have no excuse for not confronting the issue. The NHS will not solve it for us, even if a fabulous amount of money was showered on it. It needs new ideas, new procedures, new traditions and rituals, maybe new professions.
So we need to talk about death and dying more. That’s an important competence. Of course, it’s a competence to do with how people live (and die) rather than how they work, and so is a bit distant from the primary focus of the Paula Principle. But it’s only one remove. And the more people in general can talk about, and manage, their own dying, the easier it will be for all those professionals who work in the area to do their job.
Post script: Driving is another ‘life skill’. I remember an important study in the 1960s (from Essex University, I think) which showed that for a lot of people driving was in fact the most skilled activity they were likely to engage in throughout the day. This was in the days of mass unskilled and repetitive jobs. It may still be the case today. But now we have results from a different study which reveals that on everything apart from steering at speed, women emerge as better drivers. They tailgate less, keep better to their lanes, and so on. Admittedly the study’s main data source seemed to be observations at a roundabout, but there we are – another stereotype bites the dust.