The tough conversations COVID-19 is forcing us to have

Photos by: Uu777

How to approach difficult topics, even when you might not be ready

I spend the majority of my time thinking about, talking about, and building products around death. It’s not a particularly easy one to sprinkle into dinner party conversations (remember dinner parties?). When people ask, “What do you do?” I answer and hold my breath for a second, waiting to see how it lands.

I co-run a company called Lantern (GCT 2020) that helps people navigate their lives before and after a death occurs. I get to spend my days working with the best team to build something that fundamentally makes one of the hardest — yet one of the most human — experiences easier to manage. As a team, we’ve lost parents, grandparents, and loved ones and have been totally overwhelmed by all the work that’s come with it. So, we’ve made it our mission to ensure every grieving person has a simple, trustworthy, and comprehensive place to turn.

I love what I do and I know that what we’re building is important and beautiful, but I also acknowledge that its mere existence makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

More frequently than I ever imagined I’d have to, I find myself reassuring people that acknowledging, talking about, and planning for death doesn’t mean that you’re rooting for it to happen. It just means that you’ll be more prepared for it when it inevitably does. That’s why, at Lantern, we tend to lean away from the term “death positive” and more toward “death aware” or “death prepared.”

Under normal circumstances, many of us have the luxury of seeing death as a far off, nebulous thing that will happen someday, but not today. During a global pandemic, those of us who have previously had that luxury have now been stripped of it.

I know it might be scary, and it’ll probably be a little uncomfortable, but for the sake of our future selves and for the sake of the ones we love, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and have these tough conversations. We’re here to guide you through it.

Tough conversations with yourself: the case for acknowledging your own mortality

Before you can start planning for your death, or encouraging other people to plan for theirs, you need to first do the work of wrapping your own head around it.

What’s been really helpful for me (and is loosely informed by researched best practices), has been removing the philosophical lens when asking questions of “what happens after you die?” and instead, replacing it with a logistical lens. “What is actually left to be done when you’re no longer around?”

That shift gave way to a framework that has been really effective for me — one that’s rooted both in empathy and in self-preservation.

  1. Empathy: If I invest in planning today, I’m ensuring easier grieving for the people I leave behind tomorrow (proverbially speaking). Without a roadmap, without clear answers to the questions they’ll be faced with, I’m setting them up for a series of gut-wrenching decisions that they’ll never be sure are the right ones. Leaving them with a plan, with certainty, is an act of love.
  2. Self-preservation: I want to be remembered how I want to be remembered. One of the beautiful things about acknowledging your death is that you can ensure that how you’re memorialized represents who you were, what you loved, and how you made people feel.

If neither of those ideas resonates, perhaps this will: research tells us that simply acknowledging the fact that death is inevitable can be a really powerful catalyst for being more present in your day-to-day life and for developing deeper relationships. Confronting the discomfort of death has the potential to give us a more meaningful life.

Tip: You can create your free end of life plan here, with Lantern.

Tough conversations with others: how to be both effective and empathetic

Conversation 1: Please stay safe

Luckily, in recent weeks, there has been a massive shift toward mandatory distancing, but all it takes is a quick scan of Twitter to see that people are still having to plead with their networks to take this seriously and stay home.

Partially to blame for this is the rapidly changing and sometimes inconsistent information we’ve been consuming — particularly at the forefront of the spread. The people in your life who are taking this lightly may not be refreshing their feeds every few minutes. Take it upon yourself to stay informed and share the high-level takeaways. Here are a few of our favorite places to stay up-to-date:

  1. The World Health Organization
  2. The CDC
  3. Johns Hopkins University

Tip: When approaching this type of conversation, try framing it as more of a plea — a favor they can grant you — rather than an argument to be won. Express your fears and root them in real examples: “I can’t stop thinking about the possibility of you not being at [upcoming life event]. This won’t last forever, but can you please minimize your risk for my sake?”

Conversation 2: Please plan ahead

Planning ahead is always important, but with mortality rates on the climb due to COVID-19, there’s more urgency than there might have been a couple of months ago. Again, I want to reiterate that having a plan in place doesn’t make death more likely to happen, it’ll just ensure that you’re more prepared if it does.

The best way to have these conversations is to use yourself as the catalyst and as an example. Express to the person or people in your life that what’s going on around us has gotten you thinking about what would happen if you were no longer around. You want to make sure that you leave behind more answers than questions.

Example: “I know it’s not the happiest thing to talk about, but I wanted to let you know that everything going on with COVID-19 has got me thinking about what would happen if I weren’t here tomorrow. It would destroy me to know I left you with a mess, so I put together an end-of-life plan. Do you have one in place?”

In a time when it feels there’s very little within your control, this is one lever you, and only you, can pull. These aren’t easy conversations to have, but they’re important.

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