Michelle Knox never knew she was ‘good’ at talking about death until her father passed away.
That’s mostly because she hadn’t ever really had to speak about it before. But when her beloved dad became seriously ill and died shortly after, Knox became somewhat of an expert on the topic – not because she wanted to. Not because she enjoyed it. But because she had to.
In the past 18 months, Knox and her work colleagues had collectively lost five parents – including Knox’s own father – and a 41-year-old colleague. These sad, shared experiences prompted many honest discussions amongst the team about dealing with grief and the processes associated with death.
“Being able to share what I’d learnt and help others gave me a positive purpose when I really needed it,” Knox, a Portfolio Manager at Westpac told Mamamia.
Having lost her father to progressive lung disease, Knox learnt that death takes on a life of its own, and that the best way to deal with it is to plan. Last November, she decided to share the lessons she has learned in a TED Talk held in Sydney.
“Talk about your death while you’re still healthy” was the topic of her speech. It resonated enormously with the audience – and went viral when it was posted online, watched nearly 1.2 million times.
Why was a normally taboo topic was so well-received?
“Because whilst no-one likes to think about it, death is a universal experience,” Knox says. “And it’s the most challenging one that many of us will face.”
In her talk, Knox addresses the common aversion to the topic by asking each of us to reflect on our core values around death and talk about the subject while we are still healthy. She says that a “good death” can reduce any additional stress, particularly financial pressure, on loved ones at what is already a difficult time.
“I want us all to talk about death more,” she says in the speech.
“If we do, we have a better chance of having a good death and helping survivors experience a healthier bereavement.”
Knox explains that when her father fell ill, he made it a priority to get organised.
“Life would be a lot easier to live if we talked about death now,” Knox says. “We need to discuss these issues when we are fit and healthy so we can take the emotion out of it – and then we can learn not just what is important, but why it’s important.”
It’s something that many people don’t consider until it’s too late. Knox says that in Australia, 45 percent of adults over the age of 18 don’t have a legal will.
“It’s a risky thing to do, because without a will, your estate could fall into the hands of a government administrator – someone who doesn’t know you, or the family.”
Explaining that because we spend so much of our lives working towards goals and organising things, it’s only natural that we do so for our exit, too, Knox asks the audience: “Isn’t it time we started taking responsibility for our finale?”
Of course, not all deaths happen from illness. So Knox’s advice is to plan as much as you can – while you have the luxury of time.
“Ensuring my father was able to die peacefully at home showed me just how much of a privilege it is to help someone exit this life in the way they choose,” she said.
Knox also noted that death itself is a process and that can come as a shock to loved ones.
“After my dad died, as a family we realised that a whole series of events takes place, that’s out of your hands. Things must be done, and attended to,” she explained. “That in itself is enough of a shock for most people, let alone having to deal with making decisions.”
As Knox says in her TED Talk, when five of her colleagues experienced family deaths, “This triggered some fairly frank conversations: dealing with government agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, advance care directives, funeral directors, coffins, headstones, headstone wording, headstone font size!”
One of the harder parts of death Knox has seen is how families come to make those decisions.
"You think you know your family, and how they will respond, but you never really know until you're in the position," Knox said.
"So many people report that their loved ones really surprised them with how they coped. So one thing's for sure, you can expect the family dynamic to change."
Which is another reason why having a plan that can be actioned, rather than decided, during the first part of grief is a blessing.
Still in the early days of processing her father's passing, Knox said it was comforting that as a result of sharing her story, people became so open with her about their experiences.
"I've heard all sorts of final requests," she added. "People feel reassured by the act of sharing what's meaningful to them. I've learn so much too - like how different cultures approach grief."
At the end of her TED Talk, Knox brought it back to her father's legacy: "I’m pleased to say we helped Dad fulfil his wishes. Although my heart is heavy with loss, it is not heavy with guilt or regret. I knew what Dad wanted and I feel peace knowing I could support his wishes. It showed me just how much of a privilege it is to help someone exit this life in the way they choose."
It's a peace that Knox hopes we can all achieve.
1. Have a plan in place and be prepared for loss, to help reduce financial pressure on loved ones during what is already a difficult time.
2. Have a conversation with friends and family to ensure they are aware of end-of-life plans, such as knowing what to do if a loved one is in hospital, and understanding how they’d like to be remembered.
3. Consider factors such as being prepared financially to cover costs and having a will in place to help the executor navigate wishes.
Have you experienced a death in the family? How did you prepare for their passing? Share your stories with us below.