Talk About Your Death While You’re Still Healthy: Michelle Knox (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Michelle Knox’s Talk: Talk About Your Death While You’re Still Healthy at TED conference.


To kick the bucket, bite the dust, cash in your chips, check out, depart, expire, launch into eternity. These are all euphemisms we use in humor to describe the one life event we are all going to experience: death. But most of us don’t want to acknowledge death, we don’t want to plan for it, and we don’t want to discuss it with the most important people in our lives.

I grew up in an Australian community where people got old or sick and passed away, and only the adults attended the funeral. My parents would come home looking sad and drained, but they didn’t discuss it with us.

So I was ignorant to death and of the grieving process. At 15, I got my invitation. A dear neighbor who was like an aunt to me died suddenly of a heart attack, and I attended my first funeral and did my first reading. I didn’t know the tightness in my chest and the dryness in my mouth was normal. The celebrant got some of the facts wrong, and it made me really angry.

He talked about how she loved knitting. Knitting — He didn’t mention that, at 75, she still mowed her own lawn, built an amazing fish pond in her front yard and made her own ginger beer. I’m pretty sure “keen knitter” isn’t what she would have chosen for her eulogy. I believe if we discuss death as part of day-to-day living, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our core values, share them with our loved ones, and then our survivors can make informed decisions without fear or regret of having failed to honor our legacy.

I am blessed to lead a wonderful, culturally diverse team, and in the last 12 months, we’ve lost five parents, including my own father, and most recently, a former colleague who died at 41 from bowel cancer. We started having open and frank conversations about what we were experiencing. We talked about the practical stuff, the stuff no one prepares you for: dealing with government agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, advanced care directives, funeral directors and extended family members, making decisions about coffins, headstones, headstone wording, headstone font size, all while sleep-deprived.

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We also discussed some of the issues triggered by our various cultural backgrounds, and we realized there can be some significant differences in how we honor the passing of a loved one. A great example of this is “Sorry Business,” practiced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

During Sorry Business, family members will take on specific roles and responsibilities, protocols such as limiting the use of photographs, saying the name of the deceased, and holding a smoking ceremony are all a sign of respect and allow for a peaceful transition of the spirit. These customs can be a complete contrast to those we might practice in Western cultures, where we would honor the memory of a loved one by talking about them and sharing photographs.

So my lesson from this last year is, life would be a lot easier to live if we talked about death now, while we’re healthy. For most of us, we wait until we are too emotional, too ill or too physically exhausted — and then it’s too late. Isn’t it time we started taking ownership of our finale on this earth? So let’s get going.

Do you know what you want when you die? Do you know how you want to be remembered? Is location important? Do you want to be near the ocean or in the ocean? Do you want a religious service or an informal party, or do you want to go out with a bang, literally, in a firework?

When it comes to death, there’s so much to discuss, but I want to focus on two aspects: why talking about and planning your death can help you experience a good death, and then reduce the stress on your loved ones; and how talking about death can help us support those who are grieving.

So let’s start with planning. How many of you have a will? Put your hand up. Oh, this is fantastic. In Australia, 45 percent of adults over the age of 18 do not have a legal will. You’re a little bit above average. This is a startling statistic given that writing a will can actually be quite simple and inexpensive.

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