Why We Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Talk About Death

Today we welcome back a special guest blogger, Stelter Client Strategist Kasi Zieminski: lifelong learner, superb storyteller, mindful marketer.

Today marks 17 years since my mom died. There have been many ripple effects resulting from that traumatic and tragic loss—one of which is that I’ve grown more comfortable talking about death.

It didn’t happen overnight. I spent the first several years pretty quiet about it, silenced by the stigma of suicide loss. Eventually I grew more comfortable opening up and sharing our story. Now I’m grateful to remember my mom for more than how she died—while also acknowledging and holding space for the myriad ways lives come to an end.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that my path eventually led me to work in planned giving.

Leaving a Legacy

Here at Stelter, we help people consider and craft their legacies. We partner with nonprofit clients to meet folks where they are along the donor journey. Together we offer tools for reflecting on what’s most meaningful in their lives and provide giving options that enable people to care for their loved ones and cherished causes long after they’re gone.

Our teams have studied terror management theory—which suggests that people grapple with their mortality by trying to avoid it or transcend it—and Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. The two final stages of his theory align with the ages of our typical planned giving prospects. They connect concepts like generativity and integrity with the importance of leaving a legacy.

Looking Back to Look Ahead

Planned giving experts like Dr. Russell James have taught us to avoid “death talk.” But that doesn’t mean avoiding the conversation altogether. Words certainly matter, yet this goes beyond replacing the scary stuff with trite euphemisms that may come across as condescending rather than comforting.

We can, and should, tell authentic stories—and create opportunities for donors to remember and share their stories as well. Dr. James cites research on “visualized autobiography” and connections between legacy donors’ life narratives and the charities they choose to remember. This idea links to what he calls “the pursuit of symbolic immortality: something reflecting the person’s life story (community and values) will live beyond them.”

Dr. Jann E. Freed, leadership development and change management consultant, reminds us that most people don’t fear death itself; they fear the dying process. One way she encourages us to overcome that fear is to bring legacy into living—think windshield, not rearview mirror. She writes and talks about “breadcrumb legacy,” left in bits and pieces daily.

[Insert obligatory Hamilton fan reference to “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” We may not get to witness all that future growth, but being present in the experience of today’s tending and cultivating also bears fruit.]

Being vs. Doing

Dr. Freed offers some suggestions for how to reframe the legacy conversation. Like this assignment: write your own eulogy (not your obituary). The focus is on being rather than doing—who you are as a person vs. a list of milestones and accomplishments.

What follows are some good questions: if that’s how you want to be remembered later, how do you need to live now? Are you doing what it takes to truly be that person?

In the context of planned giving, we can ask donors questions like:

  • What difference do you want to make?
  • Would you like to see your legacy before you leave?
  • If you support causes and organizations while you’re living, would you like to continue supporting them when you’re gone?

Kimberley Pittman-Schulz, grief & life transitions coach, nonprofit capacity-building consultant, author and mentor, also encourages us not to shy away from these conversations. For those who want to write their own end-of-life story, she says, the process of dying becomes reflecting upon what it means to be alive.

Dying as Part of Living

For planned giving marketers and fundraisers, Pittman-Schulz reminds us that we are “at the intersection of death and legacy”—where we can help people “leave some ripples in the world.” This unique position means that we can give comfort and receive comfort, sometimes at the same time. We are all dying, all the time, she says. And, we’re in such a role that we can help nurture people—and ourselves—in the process.

This certainly resonates with me, reflecting on my personal experiences with loss and our collective grief throughout these past three pandemic years. We may not get to choose how or when we encounter death. However, when we can accept that death is part of life, we can talk about it more easily, listen for the lessons we and others need to hear, and accompany each other on the journey.

More from Kasi

  • Terror Management Theory, Psychology Today
  • Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, Very Well Mind
  • Using storytelling in major and planned gifts fundraising: new findings, ancient origins, and practical tips, Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP, Woodmark Summit, 2021
  • Putting Research to Work in Your Planned Giving Program, Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP, National Association of Charitable Gift Planners National Conference, 2020
  • Conversations About Death and Other Elephants in the Room, Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., Mid-Iowa Planned Giving Council Fall Conference, 2022
  • Talking About Death: Planned Giving and End-of-Life Planning, Kimberley Pittman-Schulz, Colorado Planned Giving Roundtable Summer Symposium at Home, 2020

One thought on “Why We Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Talk About Death

Leave a Reply