Michelle Knox: Can Talking About Death Take Fear And Stress Out Of The Inevitable? How can we better cope with grief? After observing funerals around the world, banker and travel blogger Michelle Knox suggests we talk about death with our loved ones — especially when we're healthy.
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Michelle Knox: Can Talking About Death Take Fear And Stress Out Of The Inevitable?

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Michelle Knox: Can Talking About Death Take Fear And Stress Out Of The Inevitable?

Michelle Knox: Can Talking About Death Take Fear And Stress Out Of The Inevitable?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Do you think it's possible to die well?

MICHELLE KNOX: I think it is possible to die well in the sense that you can take some ownership around how you want your final moments on this earth to be.

RAZ: This is Michelle Knox. She's a travel blogger who's been to over 90 countries. And Michelle started thinking a lot about death and how to better cope with it a couple of years ago when her dad got sick.

KNOX: He had a progressive lung disease, and he knew he was dying. And he actually had three very clear wishes that he shared with us as his family. And they were that he wanted to die at home. He wanted to die surrounded by family. And he wanted to die peacefully, so not choking or gasping for air. And fortunately with modern medicine, we were able to support those wishes. We were able to have him come home, care for him in the home. And it made it so much easier knowing that everything we did, we did in support of his wishes. And for him, death is still death. There's no getting around that, and there is always going to be a form of suffering at the end for, I think, most people. And we can't pretend that that's not there. But what we can do is allow people to make some decisions around how they want their care to be. If we'd had these conversations sooner and got it out in the open, things would be a little bit easier.

RAZ: After her dad passed away, Michelle set out to better understand what a good death can look like. So she started having conversations about death on her travels. She read books on the subject, and she attended nearly a dozen funerals.

KNOX: So through my learnings over the last two years, it's about understanding, OK, I appreciate that one day I am going to die. So if I take a step back while I'm the young and while I'm healthy and I think about things that are important to me and maybe share that with my family and friends, I will have a better chance of experiencing a healthy death at some point in the distant future. And my family will have some idea of, you know, what's important to me and how to honor me when I do pass.

RAZ: I mean, most of us - right? - when we're able and healthy, most of us actively avoid thinking about death because death is scary. I think most people would agree that it's - we just don't want to think about it.

KNOX: That's true. We don't want to think about it, and most people will shut it down if you bring it up. And for quite some time, I've been wondering - why, given it's something that impacts - every single living thing on this planet is impacted by death at some point - why have we, as societies, shut this down and don't talk about it? So I think that's part of the challenge, is that somewhere in there we've decided that this is a really tough conversation, and then we don't know how to talk about it ourselves.

RAZ: Michelle Knox picks up her idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNOX: So let's get going. Do you know what you want when you die? Do you know how you want to be remembered? Is location important? Do you want to be near the ocean - or in the ocean? Do you want a religious service or an informal party? Or do you want to go out with a bang - literally, in a firework?

RAZ: All right. Note to self - talk about my death.

KNOX: Yes.

RAZ: OK, I'm writing this down now.

KNOX: OK. Good. Excellent.

RAZ: So what's your perfect death? Like, you know, just kind of sketch it out for me. How do you want to die?

KNOX: I had my palm read in India recently, and I was told I will live till I'm 86. I'm OK with that.

RAZ: All right, OK. 86, pretty good.

KNOX: And I plan to die in my sleep.

RAZ: That's, like, the golden ticket of death.

KNOX: It is. That's what I'm going for. So the next step is - I've let my family know - I have a will, which is very important. And I want to be cremated. I would like a service where I'm honored and remembered. And most importantly, they're drinking French champagne. We'll start with that. There will definitely be some music and potentially a bit of "Dancing Queen" from ABBA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABBA SONG, "DANCING QUEEN")

KNOX: My honoring of my passing will be a celebration. I would like everyone to leave going, well, she lived her life by her own rules, and boy, did she do it well. That's what I hope for.

RAZ: I mean, do you think, like, the rest of us can do that? Like, do you think it's possible to rewire our brains so that, you know, death is, like, this joyful thing we celebrate? Or I mean, do you think that just kind of defies, you know, who we are as humans?

KNOX: No, I think we can redefine this, and I think we're starting to. And I think it's - what it really stems from - it's not so much reprogramming the brain but bringing it more into everyday conversation and acknowledging that death is part of life. And what we should be doing is celebrating the life of someone, particularly if they've lived a long, fulfilling life, and bringing that to the surface and honoring their memory with their life journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNOX: I've been to 10 funerals in the last year, one of which I helped arrange. They ran the full gamut - a very solemn Greek Orthodox service, four Catholic Requiem masses and a garden party where I made a toast while scattering my friend's ashes around her garden with a soup ladle.

(LAUGHTER)

KNOX: I have carried, kissed, written on and toasted coffins with a shot of ouzo. I have worn all black, all color and a party dress. Despite the vast differences in send-off - despite me being at times out of my comfort zone doing something I've never done before, I drew comfort from one thing - knowing that this is what each person would have wanted.

RAZ: Through your travels and the people that you've met and encountered, have you come across a culture or a community that just deals with death better than, you know, people in the West, for example, do?

KNOX: I would say, in my experience, Buddhist communities really face it head-on in a really practical way. And I was actually traveling in Nepal - I was up in the Himalayas. And one night, I was - spent the whole night awake hearing these horns being blown. And in the morning, I was just standing outside in a little piece of sunshine that was shining down on this one spot, when this procession came past me. And part of the procession was a body, and it was a monk who'd passed away during the night.

And the village all comes out and walked down. And they go into the procession after this, honoring the person's passing. And it was quite confronting because it's the first time I'd seen someone who passed away. But it was just done with such practical application, I suppose. There's such an acceptance that death is part of life. And there was a way in which it's honored that I actually realized - probably the fear that we have in the Western culture is this attachment to our human form and the fear of not knowing what happens next.

I think, across all cultures, we believe one of three things. We either believe we're going somewhere else - somewhere better; we believe we're being reincarnated, or we believe nothing happens, and we return to the earth. And through all my travels - and I have been to almost about 90 countries now in my - over the years...

RAZ: Wow.

KNOX: ...I've not seen anything different than those three possibilities. And even if in different cultures we have different beliefs, I just absolutely know that talking about this topic will enable you to have, to some degree, a good death, however that looks and also a healthy bereavement. Grief is always going to be grief, and it is part of life. And we will never be able to remove that aspect. But we can remove guilt and fear and stress and anxiety. We can work on those things.

RAZ: That's travel blogger Michelle Knox. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about dying well. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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