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Why we should face up to death

Talking at the Edinburgh conference of the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief campaign had two advantages for Dr Kate Granger: she had the chance to help advance a cause she believes in and to cross "seeing the pandas" off her bucket list.

The list is becoming ever-more pressing for Dr Granger. The 31-year-old hospital doctor – who specialises in elderly medicine – is terminally ill. An Edinburgh University graduate who now lives in Yorkshire, she was diagnosed with a desmoplastic small-round-cell tumour, a rare but highly aggressive cancer causing growths in the abdomen, in July 2011. She was told it was likely she might only have 14 months to live.

This is why she was one of the main speakers at the recent Edinburgh event to mark the first birthday of the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief campaign, which is backed by organisations across Scotland aiming to make society more open about death.

"Death is still such a taboo subject but it's something that will happen to everyone at some point," she says. Ignoring it is very unhelpful and can cause unnecessary distress, as she knows from experience.

"It can be very frustrating trying to get people to talk about planning for death, especially since it affects everyone," she says. "I feel I have a fairly unique perspective, as a doctor and as a patient, and there is no doubt I have experienced bad news broken to me badly.

"I do appreciate that doctors deal with it every day and it's a job to us but it is a unique experience for every patient and some doctors could work on showing compassion."

Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief was launched after research found most people haven't talked to family and friends about the kind of care their loved ones would want at the end of their life or where they would like to die.

The same survey found 61% of people were scared of dying in hospital and 60% said if people felt more comfortable talking about death and dying, they would be less likely to die alone.

While it is an alliance of hospices, charities, health care professionals, educational bodies and individuals, with an interest in being more open about death, membership of Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief is open to everyone.

Simply, the campaign says, the topic is one many people struggle with. Death is an inevitable part of life but it can be difficult to come to terms with. Mortality at any age and refusing to acknowledge or talk about terminal illness or death can cause very stressful and upsetting situations.

As a result, campaigners argue, people often don't die where they want to, families can be left fighting legal battles because of a lack of a will and people living with bereavement or serious illness are often isolated because no-one knows what to say to them.

Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief aims to help people realise discussing death is a sensible way to deal with something that is inevitable for everyone and can also ensure people die well, with all the support and comfort needed.

On a purely practical level, planning for death when you're healthy means there is less to think about if you get sick and less for relatives to worry about – as evidenced by the number of people who pre-plan and pay for their funerals.

But the campaign points out that while planning a funeral is still something which can be done with minimum or no discussion with family members, other aspects require more communication, which can be tough.

Helping people feel more comfortable about talking also applies to bereavement, where those who are grieving can feel there is almost an expected time limit to their sadness, which adds further pressure at a very sad time.

Since her diagnosis Dr Granger has written two books about her experiences called The Other Side and The Bright Side and has gone back to work part-time, aiming to keep life on as even a keel as possible for her and her husband Chris.

"It was harder for Chris to accept than it was for me," she says. "He really struggled and I would say he's just coming to terms with it now. I also think he's getting his grieving done now.

"I never felt bitter, I can't change what has happened so I have to accept it. My first book was about encouraging medical professionals to think about end-of-life care from the patient's perspective and my second book is all about the importance of being open about death.

She acknowledges that it is easier for some people to talk about terminal illness than others, but feels raising awareness helps everyone. "Dad's very quiet about it but Mum's like me, pragmatic and with a good touch of black humour, which helps us both.

"She was buying a very expensive present for me and when I questioned the price she said, 'Well, you don't need your inheritance do you?

"Everyone copes in different ways and with me it's working to a two-month window at a time.

"My brother and his wife had their first baby on January 2 and I'm so happy to have been able to meet the latest member of my family. Jacob is just gorgeous and I'm absolutely smitten."

She continues to work and that side of her life is hectic at present, she says. After an unexpectedly positive recent scan she's been able to look ahead to another two months.

"Two of my best friends have just got engaged and are planning their weddings. I'm hopeful I might make the March one but don't think there's any way I'll still be here for the August one.

"I also make jokes about popping my clogs and pushing up the daisies, I'm not sure just how funny they are but the subject is out there and it's easier for everyone."

Visit http://theothersidestory.co.uk/thebrightside and www.goodlifedeathgrief.org.uk

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