We are living in terrifying times – all of us, the entire planet. Our way of life, our understanding of the world as we knew it has changed forever. – By Dr Helena Dolny
Now, possibly more than ever before, we need to find a way to have conversations about mortality that are fruitful not fearful, that are fundamentally life-affirming in the face of new circumstances that will make death more present and grief even harder to bear.
Family members are having to drop loved ones off at hospitals hoping to see them when they recover but fearing that they might die alone, surrounded only by hospital staff. We face being denied the comfort of the rituals and traditions that we hold dear, being denied the opportunity to pay last respects when friends and relatives are laid to rest. The hardest thing about life, death, has just got immeasurably harder.
Last year, we founded an organisation we call LoveLegacyDignity. Our purpose is to encourage people to have conversations about their mortality within a programme that is life affirming. We never imagined then that we would have to design a module about what to do when you can’t perform rituals, pay condolences in person, and hold the services that are such a fundamental part of the social fabric that binds and supports us in times of grief.
Ngiphiwe Mhlangu shared this: “One of the first Covid-19 deaths in South Africa is a relative of mine. My heart aches when to think of her dying alone surrounded by the brave, exhausted, faceless and nameless hospital staff.
“Speaking to my family, their distress and fear dominate the conversation. Normally, this conversation would have been about the arrangements, the traditions and most importantly, the mourning and the mourners. Covid-19 has changed that. Now we talked about our human fear, and I’m distraught at this fundamental change in our conversations, our emotions, and our actions.
Overnight we have lost a sister, a daughter, a mother and a friend, and we cannot mourn her. Two family members living with her tested positive for the virus and have been hospitalised while those who tested negative have been asked to self-quarantine.
We are gripped by fear and anxiety. Both emotions overshadow the grief we should be feeling and we are numb. The immediate family has lost the head of their family. They are uncertain about the future, but right now they have to manage the practicalities of their situation. They have postponed grieving so they can engage only with health officials, who I’m told are compassionate and comforting. I’m grateful for the humanity that prevails and salute the courage of our health workers. But I fear that if the pandemic escalates, health workers’ capacity for the emotional component of their work will diminish. Can we imagine how they all feel right now?
This is our new… normal.
What can we do to support one another at a time when mortality stares at us in a way that we’ve never faced before?
And what can we do to be more in a state of readiness should we become a casualty of Covid-19?”
Eleven years ago I started writing the book that was published as Before Forever After: when conversations about living meet questions about dying. Its first working title was I Don’t Want to Talk About it! When people asked what I was writing about, I’d say it was a book about how you live your life well in the presence of death and how you’d prefer to die. I’d try to convince them it was ultimately upbeat, life-enhancing and not morbid. But so many people responded with “I don’t want to talk about it” or as my 86-year-old-mother-in-law said, “I’ll talk about it when the right time comes.”
The right time is right now. And we would like to offer you a framework for the conversations that will help you prepare for these immensely difficult times. .
LoveLegacyDignity bears its three-fold name because it reflects the framework we have created to inspire and guide this deeply personal work. Love means that we are at peace with ourselves and our relationships – for better, for worse; legacy suggests that beyond the traditional matters of money and property, we are leaving our affairs in order to spare those who mourn us the added trauma of chaos and bureaucracy. Finally, we should secure our own dignity and that of our loved ones by being specific about our end-of-life medical and posthumous wishes.
Here is a four-part conversational framework to direct and support your deliberations.
Begin this deeply personal work by taking stock of your life. Imagine a personal celebratory occasion, post Covid-19. What would the praise singer say about you? Who are you? What values have you lived by? What are you proud of?
It’s so important to validate who we are because in doing so we are then best positioned to frame our response to mortality and our fear of it. Write the script for your praise singer. Then deliver it as a speech to the rest of your family. There’s power in being witnessed speaking out loud. It’s an essential part of creating ritual.
Next you need to take stock of the relationships in your life: family, friends, colleagues and other. Put an O for okay next to the ones you are at peace with. O doesn’t necessarily mean these relationships are all in a great state – you could be distant – but O means you are comfortable enough with the way they are. Put a triangle next to those you’d like to be part of a shift in that relationship. Consider if there’s any forgiveness that you need to contemplate that would support that shift. Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s Book of Forgiving that he penned with his daughter Mpho is a wonderful resource if you need to bring balm to something that hurts you from the past.
What we do with this time will shape not only our immediate future, it will also confirm what is important to us, and shape who we will become. Use this moment in time to have meaningful life-affirming conversations with loved ones, to make sure that you are at peace with the state of your relationships. Let’s pursue life-affirming conversations about mortality. Let’s reshape and strengthen our relationship with conversations about living and dying.
Everyone deserves as good and peaceful a death as possible. Leaving Covid-19 aside, the process of family members dying from other illnesses will continue to be part of our daily lives. You need to have clarity about medical preferences, pain management and the point at which you may decide to decline further treatments as futile.
And who will speak for you if you become unconscious and can’t speak for yourself? You need what we call a “health care proxy”. And it may be important to you that this person is not next-of-kin. You may have good reason for choosing someone else.
Think beyond the traditional concepts of legacy, the business, the property, the money, the garden. Think of legacy as including having your affairs comprehensively in order. Administratively, you need to do a will if you haven’t already got one – or update it if needs be. It can be handwritten, and it needs two witnesses, who stand not to benefit, to make it valid.
Ritual at a time of social distancing
Let’s look at what the crucial lessons are for us to learn. Much of what has already changed, and much of what will still be revealed, will give all of us insight into who we are and what is precious to us in our understanding and relationship with rituals and traditions. Cremation is being recommended for those who die of Covid-19. That requires a huge psychological shift for those whose ritual wish or religious following involves burial. What can we do when we can’t mourn as we normally would? Ritual is an important support. What can we do in our homes? We can create a memory table reflecting the life of the deceased. We can create our own daily practice of prayers or meditation or candle lighting. If we’re fortunate to have the technology, we can host a virtual gathering and create a service and conversations.
One thing that will take many hours, grind and patience is completing what we call our Checklist for checking out. You will be able to find a tool to help you doing this by clicking on the following link
And if much of this seems to you to be very practical, that’s true but what we’ve also learnt is to never underestimate the power of the practical discussions to unlock the deeply emotional conversations.
Helena Dolny is a leadership coach and author of Before Forever After: when conversations about living meet questions about dying.
Ngiphiwe Mhlangu is a leading journalist and media strategist. Together they joined forces as founders of LoveLegacyDignity, a social enterprise which promotes life-affirming conversations in the face of our inevitable mortality. Visit lovelegacydignity for more details and to register. They are offering a four-part online zoom series that covers the four key areas detailed above, free for the first 100 who express their interest
This article was origianlly produced as an op-ed for the Daily Maverick – to read the article on the Daily Maverick – please go to