Death and dying

During interviews people spoke candidly about their own mortality; how they felt about dying, what their wishes were and who they spoke to about them. They also talked about losing loved ones, the grief they experienced and the strategies they used to cope.

Because death is inevitable it was accepted by many participants as a natural part of the life course. People with religious or other spiritual beliefs spoke about their lack of fear and their curiosity or faith about what awaits them after death, such as being reunited with their spouse who had already died. Several people, whether they identified as religious or not, said they were ready to die, that they were happy to leave this planet but would prefer a quick and painless death.

Sabihe is not scared of death and believes there is something to follow this life. When she is sad she sometimes talks to her mother and husband who have passed away and they comfort her.

For Guymun getting older means getting closer to death. She is not afraid of dying and believes she will meet all the people she knows in Heaven.

Tonia and Michael say they are sick of living, but they stay on because they are needed to pray for their children. They rely on God to decide when it is time to die.

Although religious faith was associated with acceptance of death, people without strong spiritual beliefs also tended not to have a fear of dying. Some people said they became more aware of death as they grew older, but only Gil said he thinks about it a lot. For a few participants, the prospect of their own death was problematic because they have so much more they want to do and realise they do not have enough time to achieve all their goals.

Fred explains that he does not have the same fear of death now he is older.

While he knows death is inevitable, Jack was the only participant to allude to death being scary.

A former fundamentalist Christian, Gil now rejects the Christian faith. He admits that he thinks about death a lot these days and describes what he believes will happen to his soul after he dies.

It was common for people to talk to their children about what they want to have happen when they die. People also spoke about the subject of death with their spouse or partner, however, a few participants said they have not discussed what would happen if one of them died. The two most common topics people discussed with their family about their own death were organ donation and their wishes around end-of-life care (also known as advance care planning). Everyone who spoke about end-of-life care wanted ‘no heroic measures’ to be taken to resuscitate them. Some statements illustrating why people felt strongly about this were “I don’t want to be like a vegetable”, “let me go with dignity”, and “I want quality of life, not quantity”.

With a new bill being introduced in the Northern Territory, Austin explains ‘Enduring Power of Attorney’ and that he and Val do not want any heroic measures taken to keep them alive.

Even though it is against his traditional Ethiopian beliefs, Ato Addis would like his organs donated after he dies.

Assisted suicide or euthanasia was a topic people felt strongly about. People who believed euthanasia should be available wanted to be able to die on their own terms and not left to suffer a long and painful death. Those who were against euthanasia pointed out that it was open to being misused or that we should let nature take its course. Two participants knew people who had died by assisted suicide. Dorothy outlines the debates surrounding euthanasia, which is one of the topics debated in her weekly discussion group.

Dorothy explains that having access to euthanasia would take away the worry about becoming a burden on her family if she were to become very ill.

When thinking about their own funeral people tended to express their general preferences rather than have any type of plan. For example, whether they wanted to be cremated or buried, where they wanted to be buried or where they wanted their ashes scattered. There were some people who did not like to think about funerals at all and would rather focus on being alive. In a similar sense, funeral plans were seen as a waste of money. At the other end of the spectrum, Gil was thinking about writing his own eulogy.

Lan would like to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in the sea. Because her family live overseas she would rather see them while she is alive than go to their funeral.

Gil has started to think about what type of funeral he wants. He would like to write his own eulogy because he wants people to know his whole history.

There was a sense amongst participants that funerals should be a celebration of a person’s life. Ato Addis contrasts this with Ethiopian funerals which are more about mourning.

Although Sabihe was sad after losing her husband, she was glad that his funeral was a happy occasion and she hopes hers is the same.

Ato Addis likes the way Australians tend to celebrate life at a funeral.

The death of a parent, spouse or friend made people more aware of growing older and their own mortality. Many participants spoke about their friends dying and how sad it was, especially losing their close friends. They also spoke about their diminishing network of friends and that it was harder to form new friendships as they aged. There was, however, a certain level of acceptance that their friends would die and an acknowledgement that “life goes on”. Having family to rely on was therefore important (see Family relationships).

The death of her parents made Kaye reflect on her own mortality and what more she could have done with her life.

Richard has suffered from depression in the last few years which was brought on by losing loved ones.

Many of Dorothy’s friends are dying and she is aware of becoming socially isolated. She is grateful to have family she can phone at any time.

While having friends die was sad but inevitable, losing a child was devastating. Participants who had lost one of their children found it “confronting”, that they “can’t come to terms with it” and “it’s always there”. In the past five years Dot’s husband and two daughters have died. She says it is something you never recover from.

After Dot’s husband and two daughters passed away she is grateful to still have her son and his partner.

Participants who had lost their spouse or partner spoke about how difficult it was to be on their own, particularly in the beginning. It was hard coming home to an empty house, not having anyone to talk to or to check they are okay. Some people felt angry at their spouse for not being there when they needed them. People who had socialised as a couple found their social circle diminished, which left them even more isolated (see Social isolation).

Sabihe went through all the stages of grief when her husband died. She was glad she had her children with her so she did not have to grieve alone.

When his wife died Brian E found it hard to come home to an empty house.

Some participants were the primary carer for their spouse before they died. It was a very difficult time, physically and emotionally. For those who nursed their partner at home, having home care and ambulance transfer services eased the burden during such a difficult time.

Brian X cared for his wife for two and a half years before she died. He had to learn how to run the household and found he automatically stepped up and did what needed to be done.

Ron cared for his wife in the years after her stroke. He was with her when she died and describes the sense of relief he had knowing she was not going to suffer anymore.

Lorna had a very set routine being a full-time carer for her husband. It took her a long time to adjust to life without him, but having hobbies helped.

People coped with the death of a loved one in a variety of ways. Some examples were joining a bereavement group at church, positive thinking or keeping busy – such as getting back into hobbies, reading, writing or going travelling. People dealt with losing someone in much the same way as they faced their own serious illness (see Health conditions), they tried to find a way to cope, tried not to dwell on it and got on with life as best they could.

Writing about the death of her son and sharing it in her creative writing class was ‘an absolute release’ for Dorothy.