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The Personal is Statistical: Talking about Death and Dying

Posted on 12 May 2017 by Sarah Morris, Research Director .
Tags: British Social Attitudes, The Personal is Statistical, death, dying

In our new monthly series, The Personal is Statistical, we'll be talking about where statistics have interacted with our personal lives. They are a bit different from the blogs we usually post, but we hope you'll enjoy reading them. The first of these blogs is written by Sarah Morris, who talks about her experience of losing a loved one and how other people in Britain feel about discussing death.


Sarah Morris 3

Five years ago NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey asked the public whether they were comfortable talking about death. Seventy per cent told us they were, with only 13% saying they were uncomfortable doing this. This seems surprising given that in my experience we don’t tend to discuss death and dying openly as a society, unless it’s the death of a favourite soap character or celebrity, even though almost 530,000 deaths were registered in 2015. When Princes William and Harry spoke recently to the media about the grief of losing their mother it seemed unprecedented, while footballer Rio Ferdinand has appeared in a documentary about his life following the death of his wife in 2015, which received significant attention.

The British Social Attitudes report also found that despite most people saying they were comfortable talking about death, less than half of people had discussed what their wishes would be if they didn’t have long to live and only 5% reported having a living will or advance care plan.

In the same year that these statistics were being collected, my boyfriend Adam was told that the cancer he had been diagnosed with a year earlier was incurable; he died a few months later. Being in our early 30s we didn’t really know what ‘palliative care’ meant, let alone expect to be put in touch with a hospice – they’re for old people or those who are about to die. We didn’t need them.

But we did need them. The hospice we were referred to supported us to get married, persuading us that it wouldn’t be the saddest wedding in the world (it wasn’t). They gave us the gentle support and space to talk about things that might help me to live without Adam, emotionally and practically. We wrote down the songs he’d like at his funeral, where he would like his ashes scattered and what he would like to happen to his belongings, financial and sentimental. This meant that he died knowing he had helped to make sure that I would be okay, one day.

I can’t help but feel that this would have been a stranger but easier conversation to have had before he was ill, when it didn’t seem so real and painful, and used those precious hours to watch Return of the Jedi for the 178th time instead.

We were lucky to have had the support, time and space to discuss these things, which helped me make difficult decisions during the most difficult times after Adam’s death. But we don’t all have the time or external support to prepare for our deaths.

So knowing how helpful this is for loved ones, why have I still not written down my wishes for my death and emailed it to my family and friends? If we really are as open and comfortable talking about death and dying as the statistics suggest, why do I still feel awkward writing a blog about death? Why do I dread telling people that my husband died, because I feel bad that they might not know what to say, or that I’m putting a downer on our light chat?

As well as being Dying Matters Awareness Week, a week when we are encouraged to think about what we can do to plan for our deaths and how we can support those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, it is also Mental Health Awareness Week. It feels to me as though we’re starting to see a more open dialogue around mental health and wellbeing. It’s going to be interesting to see whether our attitudes to talking about death also start to shift as a result of this and whether more of us will make plans for the end of life.  In the meantime, I’m off to think carefully about which Take That song I’d like at my funeral.

Follow me on Twitter at @morrisarah

For more information on making plans for the end of life and talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement, see

Read the full BSA chapter on discussing death and planning for the end of life.

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