The Conversation About Death That Can Change Your Life

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Courtesy / Esther Pipoly

Esther Pipoly with her father (left) and husband in 1995.

Sixty-three days. That’s all it took for life as I knew it to come tumbling down around me. It’s the number of days that passed between the death of my father and the death of my husband. The grief was overwhelming, made worse by the insurmountable tasks ahead of me: settling estates, dealing with insurance companies, closing down a business, and learning to navigate life as a widow and single mother.

My father’s death was expected – he was 81 years old and he was a planner. His affairs were in order and he clearly communicated his last wishes to me. “You will know when the time is right to let me go,” he told me. “Just please make me comfortable.”

Those words made the hardest decision of my life a little easier. When he was unresponsive in intensive care, I stopped everything, made him comfortable, and let him go – just as he had asked.

It was at his funeral that my active, healthy, adventure-seeking husband said he “didn’t feel good.” Just over two months later he was gone, taken by an aggressive cancer that didn’t care that he was athletic, followed a healthy diet, and was in the middle of closing down his law practice so he could fulfill a dream of sailing around the world – a dream he would never realize.

Unlike my father, my husband was not a planner and the days, weeks, months, and years that followed were some of the worst of my life. I always say, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” and it turned out there was a lot I didn’t know. If my husband and I had only talked about his business, our insurance policies, and other important end-of-life issues, I might not have faced three years of legal battles and lessons learned the hard way. But we didn’t. He handled everything, and I never asked questions.

My experience served as a catalyst for me to create a safe space for people to ask all the difficult yet necessary questions. In 2017, I founded Loss of Life Advocates (LOLA) to offer services both for people preparing for a loved one’s death and those coping with one after the fact.

Death is not a pleasant conversation, but it is a necessary one in order to make your life and the lives of your loved ones easier. How do you start? As my late father used to say, “timing is everything,” so pick a good place and time where people are comfortable and there will be no interruptions.

You could host a “bucket list” party – all you need is paper, pens, a bucket, and possibly cocktails (hey, it can’t hurt!). Ask everyone to write down experiences they wish to have during their lifetime and place them in the bucket. Then everyone takes out a note and reads it out loud – it gets the conversation started in a fun way.

You could also host a dinner party with the purpose of talking about loss with others who have been through or are going through the experience. The concept, which started with a group of 30-somethings in California and New York who had all experienced loss and yearned for a platform to share their questions and concerns, has proven to be a great starting point for initiating conversations that are difficult to have one-on-one.

However you choose to do it, I urge you to have this conversation before it is too late. Once my husband was diagnosed with cancer, he could only talk about hope and a cure. People shut down because they don’t want to face the fact that they might not survive. The weight becomes so heavy it is like the proverbial elephant in the room, but worse. It is the enemy in the room and if left unaddressed, it will steal not only the life of someone you love – it will steal part of your life as well.

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