Death and dying are not topics that most of us are particularly fond of thinking about. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. In fact, not only should we talk about them, we should plan for them. Getting in the right frame of mind to start the process is easier said than done. Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there to help. One source that is easy to overlook is the TED Talk. TED Talks about death and dying offer rich narratives that can help us start thinking about what is truly inevitable. They can also help us learn how we can shape the way we experience the end of life.
If you’re not familiar with Gail Rubin you probably should be. Gail, who also goes by the moniker of “The Doyenne of Death,” has a website called A Good Goodbye. The website is filled with insightful information regarding grief and how to deal with it. In October of last year, Ms. Rubin gave a TED Talk about death and dying. The talk was witty, insightful, and touched on things that we all need to think about. To be more specific, planning for what happens when we die.
If you aren’t familiar with TED Talks, the concept is relatively simple. People with something to say give a video talk no longer than 18 minutes on just about any topic. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that but lucky for us there is an organization, TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design], behind the scenes facilitating the presentations and making sure the content is distributed.
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world. (from www.TED.com)
Not all of the topics covered in TED Talks are as complex or sensitive as death and dying, but all are thought-provoking. That’s because TED looks for “engaging, charismatic speakers whose talks expose new ideas that are supported by concrete evidence and are relevant to a broad, international audience.” To be sure, each of the speakers brings his or her own unique perspective to the topic whether it be the exploration of a scientific theory or an account of a personal journey.
That brings us to the topic of death and dying. For each of us, it is very personal and our perspective is colored by our own unique experiences. The same can be said for the TED Talks that cover the subject. The speakers cover a variety of angles related to death and dying and may not, in fact, hold exactly the same point of view that you do. Nevertheless, his or her story will give you something to think about and may coax a tear or a smile along the way.
With that in mind, we’ve gathered what we think are some of the best TED Talks about death and dying and have posted them below. We hope that once you watch or listen you’ll take Ms. Rubin’s advice and think about your own plans.
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Watch these TED Talks about death and dying
Dr. Peter Saul is a Senior Intensive Care specialist in the adult and pediatric ICU at John Hunter Hospital, and Director of Intensive Care at Newcastle Private Hospital in Australia. According to his bio on the TED website, over the past 35 years he has been intimately involved in the dying process for over 4,000 patients. Dr. Saul brings the insight he has gained through his extensive experience to bear in offering advice on how to start a conversation with your family regarding your preferences for end of life care.
What would be a good end of life? During her TED Talk, Judy McDonald Johnston provides her unique perspective on the question. She is the first to admit she’s not a geriatrician but she does have first-hand experience helping others shape their end of life journey. Ms. Johnston’s experience has led her to create a five-step process which starts with making a plan and ends with discussing last words.
BJ Miller is a palliative caregiver and executive director at Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Dr. Miller combines his experience working with those who are near death with his own personal brush with mortality–as a youth he climbed on top of a commuter train and touched a live wire. The experience left him without several limbs but he survived and went on to serve those who are approaching the end of life. “For most people, the scariest thing about death isn’t being dead; it’s dying, suffering,” he said. “How we die is indeed something we can affect. Making the system sensitive to this fundamental distinction between necessary and unnecessary suffering. After all, our role as caregivers, as people who care, is to relieve suffering – not add to the pile.”
Philosopher Steven Cave explores the ways we use immortality stories to develop our way of thinking about death. According to Cave’s theory, there are 4 basic forms of mortality stories. Because we are “biased” to be afraid of death, these stories offer us comfort but also prevent us from dealing with death. Cave argues that this bias leads to living a life based on a fear of the end. Instead, we should live our life as if it is a book. We can’t know the beginning or the end. “And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
Amanda Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She is also a wife who lost her husband after a long battle with cancer. Her very personal TED Talk shares what she learned about hope while she watched her husband’s journey. Her book, “The Cost of Hope,” delves more deeply into the topic. “How can we learn that people’s decisions about their loved ones are often based strongly, powerfully, many times irrationally, on the slimmest of hopes? The overwhelming presence of hope isn’t denial. It’s part of our DNA as humans, and maybe it’s time our healthcare system — doctors, patients, insurance companies, us, started accounting for the power of that hope. Hope isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.”