'Talking About Death Won't Kill You' advises Lakehead University professor in new book
Kathy Kortes-Miller wrote guide to end-of-life discussions to show 'using the d-word doesn't have to be scary'
When Kathy Kortes-Miller, an assistant professor of social work at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., set out to write a book that would guide people as they discuss the end-of-life with their loved ones, she knew she needed to be a bit cheeky to "show people that using the d-word doesn't have to be a scary thing".
Hence the title: Talking About Death Won't Kill You. The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations.
She said she wants the book, which is published by ECW press, to be a conversation starter for discussions "we should be having throughout our life, and they don't have to be the elephant in the room."
'Life is a terminal illness, which is sexually transmitted'
Humour plays an important role in the book, with Kortes-Miller, who is also the palliative care division lead at the Centre for Education and Research on Aging and Health at the university, quoting British comedian John Cleese, "who has been known to say, 'life is a terminal illness, which is sexually transmitted'."
However, she does not make light of how painful or challenging it can be to have these conversations.
"I wanted to be able to show that I could walk the walk," she said of her decision to share examples from her own life, such as stories of people she worked with in palliative care or the death of close friends.
But Kortes-Miller acknowledged it is one thing to talk about death in an academic or clinic setting, "but it's another thing to think about it as someone who is going to die."
'Really tricky' to tell own children about cancer diagnosis
She relates how, several years ago, she and her husband had to tell their two young children that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and that the future was uncertain.
"As a parent, one of the things you want to do is protect your child, and make them feel safe and let them have the understanding that of course your parents know what's going to happen next, and they're going to prepare you for that, and that was a really tricky one," said Kortes-Miller, who is now healthy.
Instead of pretending everything was going to be okay, they promised their children "we would always keep them in the loop, we would always be honest, and we would always answer their questions to the best that we could."
'The cost we pay for loving someone'
The book is divided into a variety of chapters to help almost anyone facing their own death, or the impending death of a colleague, friend, or loved one of any age. It also offers advice on building compassionate workplaces and talking to health care practitioners, and it discusses what is involved in medical assistance in dying (MAID).
"Death is not a medical event. It is a social process," full of meaning and worth, writes Kortes-Miller
"Yes, it's difficult. Yes, it's sad. But that's part of the cost we pay for loving someone, for having the privilege of getting to know them, and caring for them, and growing old with them, whatever that might look like," she said.
You can hear the full interview with Kortes-Miller, which aired on CBC Radio's Up North program, here.