Anna Lyons and Louise Winter are the founders of Life. Death. Whatever., an initiative to change the way people talk and think about death. In their new book, We All Know How This Ends, the pair share the lessons they’ve learnt through working with death – and share why talking about the subject is so important for all of us.
If death feels like one of the last things you want to think about right now, you’re not alone. Over the last 12 months, the world has felt like a pretty dark and upsetting place, and so volunteering to spend time reflecting on the end of life – an event commonly associated with grief, loss and heartache – can seem pretty nonsensical.
This is especially true at a time when so many are being forced to grieve the loss of a relative or loved one to Covid-19. Indeed, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, it can feel even more tempting to try and ignore the subject wherever possible – to surround yourself with life in an attempt to counteract the loss.
But what if we could talk about death in a way that didn’t make it feel such a big, scary, upsetting concept? That instead of fueling our discomfort and pretending it doesn’t exist, we could confront the topic of death – head-on?
That’s the mission behind the new book We All Know How This Ends, which aims to help people rethink how they talk about and navigate the subject of death and dying.
Written by Anna Lyons, an end-of-life doula, and Louise Winter, a progressive funeral director, the co-founders of the Life. Death. Whatever. initiative which aims to “redesign the dialogue around death and dying,” the book is a “profound but practical guide” to death and dying in all its forms.
Covering everything from how to organise a funeral to what to say when a friend experiences grief, We All Know How This Ends is packed full of useful advice and meaningful reflections taken from Lyons and Winters’ experiences working with death.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about death and dying,” Lyons tells Stylist. “Most people don’t know what normal dying or a dead body looks like, and because we make things up when we don’t know we create this sense of fear around it. I think if we were more open and honest about what things really looked and felt like, it wouldn’t be such a scary or tricky subject to think or talk about.”
As a progressive funeral director, this is something Winter thinks about a lot. She believes the reason why so many people are uncomfortable with death and dying is because it’s often hidden behind closed doors, which means that, when death does affect us, it feels like a massive, inconceivable and alien concept.
“Nowadays we have a very sanitised relationship with death, partly due to modern medicine, meaning that we’re just not always surrounded by it like people would have been in the Victorian era for example, when death was everywhere,” she explains. “Death is this thing which is swept out of view and often happens in hospitals far away from us, and we’re very sanitised from it.”
This kind of collective unwillingness to acknowledge and experience death leads to a number of problems, as Lyons and Winter highlight in their book. Not only does it mean society as a whole is not practically prepared to deal with death – for example, most hospitals don’t have signposts to the mortuary, and hospices are often built without facilities to care for people after they’ve died – but it also distances us, the living, from our own mortality.
“[When we don’t talk about death] I think we take life for granted, in a way that we don’t if we accept that one day we’re going to die,” Winter says. “Whereas, on the other hand, if we can find our mortality, we can live a richer and more fulfilling life, and I think it makes us into more open, honest, vulnerable people who can make better decisions and be more compassionate towards others.”
Not only does embracing our own mortality help us to do all the things Winter describes, but it also puts us in a better position to cope with the loss of a loved one or family member.
“If we don’t ever think it’s going to happen to us, when somebody we love dies, we don’t really have any of the tools to be able to cope with it,” Lyons points out. “I think talking about it and accepting it allows us to know that we can live with it in a way that, when people don’t have these conversations and something awful does happen, it can be very difficult to see.”
The kinds of conversations Lyons and Winter are talking about don’t need to be complex or upsetting, either. It can be something as simple as remarking on a passing hearse or talking about your ’digital afterlife’ – small things which bring the topic of death and dying into the everyday and will help you to feel more comfortable in the long run.
“I think what we always try and get across is that death doesn’t have to be this abstract, ugly, awful, scary thing,” Winter says.
“Sometimes it is all of those things, definitely. But the more we engage with it as just a normal, healthy part of life that is completely inevitable, the better all of our experiences will be.”
We All Know How This Ends: Lessons About Life And Living From Working With Death And Dying by Anna Lyons and Louise Winter is out now
Images: John Phillips/Bloomsbury