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How Talking About Death Can Help You Live A Better Life, From An MD

Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
Shosana Ungerleider, MD Podcast Article

Image by Shosana Ungerleider PR Team / Contributor

We live in a "death-denying culture," internal medicine physician Shoshana Ungerleider, M.D., tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Meaning, death and illness are largely left to institutions behind closed doors—say, in a hospital setting, sterilized and hooked up to tubes and machines. Young people don't typically witness the dying process as they once did: "A hundred years ago, families used to witness death as a regular occurrence in their homes, it was normal." Of course, they didn't have lifesaving modern medicine back then (this she realizes), but it's also important to remember that death is part of life. "It's really not being talked about or being planned for the ways that it maybe should be," she says. 

As the founder of the End Well Project and the executive producer of the Academy Award–nominated short documentary End Game, Ungerleider is trying to shift this narrative: We need to talk more about death, she notes, as the conversations actually help you live a better life. "Seeing the end of life as a part of life is, to me, critical for living a good life," she notes. Below, she offers three reasons talking about death can enrich your time on Earth:

1. You can advocate for yourself, should that time come.

According to Ungerleider, talking about death can help you refine your end-of-life care plan (aka, how you wish to spend your final days, should you become seriously ill at the end of your life). Ungerleider, herself, signed a health care proxy—meaning, someone who knows her well can speak for her if she is unable to speak for herself. But to get to that point, you'd have to, well, talk to a loved one about what you want out of end-of-life care—whether it's in a hospital setting, at home surrounded by family, or somewhere in the middle. 

"Knowing that I have somebody who can advocate for me, if I can't speak for myself, gives me a lot of solace," she says. "As hard as it is to even think about the day when you are no longer going to be alive, I would encourage people to personally reflect on what matters most to you, God forbid you are to become seriously ill." 

It doesn't have to be a morbid or dark conversation, she notes. It's an intense discussion, sure, but once you and your loved ones know how you wish to spend your final days, you may feel a sense of comfort—you'll know someone quite literally has your back. We should also note: You don't have to have a final answer right now! Ungerleider doesn't know exactly how she wants to spend her last days, but just knowing she can have someone to advocate for her brings her peace of mind. "We've got to talk about those things, and it's really helpful." 

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2. It allows you to savor small moments.

"Living with the sense of perspective that life is finite, every day, is really kind of helpful," she says. "It helps me to really remember that the small things in life matter. Watching a beautiful sunset or seeing a beautiful flower when I'm out on a walk—really savor those moments."

That's not to say you should go through life fearing death, but understanding that life is precious (and not guaranteed) can allow you to truly enjoy life's simple pleasures. "Every time I say, 'I love you' to my husband and to my family, I really mean it," she adds. "It's allowed me to also recognize that I want to feel as fulfilled as I possibly can every day because we just don't know how long we have." 

3. You can connect with your loved ones on a deeper level. 

Talking about death can be a rather challenging conversation—this we know. There's a reason the topic doesn't typically pop up in everyday conversation. However, according to Ungerleider, having these conversations can allow you to intimately connect with your loved ones—perhaps in a way you haven't before. Through discussing this shared human experience (because at the end of the day, we all reach The End), you can connect on a much deeper level. "Sometimes there's even humor in it," Ungerleider says. "Or you get to know the person that you love better because you're sharing something really deep from inside. I think that's really important." 

The takeaway. 

Talking about death doesn't have to be a morbid or dark conversation—in fact, according to Ungerleider, the discussion can help you live a better, more fulfilling life. Perhaps if we shift the narrative and become more open about death and dying, it won't be such a scary concept to fathom.

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