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'Don't be afraid to talk about death - it's a chance to share your wishes with loved ones'

As the new Northern Ireland Hospice opens its doors this week to show how it spends public donations, Lorraine Graham from Bangor, lead social worker at the Belfast facility, tells Stephanie Bell why it is important for all of us to speak to our families about passing on.

Lorraine Graham's job is to help people talk about death. As national Dying Matters Awareness Week draws to a close, we are all being urged to discuss our own passing and few people are better qualified than Lorraine to understand why it is so important.

For the past 16 years the Bangor mother-of-two has devoted herself to working with terminally ill patients and their families at the Northern Ireland Hospice.

As lead social worker in charge of co-ordinating bereavement services, she knows all too well the sensitivities surrounding a subject which most of us struggle to talk about.

She also knows the benefits to loved ones and terminally ill patients when they are encouraged and helped to make their wishes known.

While most of us don't want to think about death, professionals working in palliative care appreciate its significance, which is why in 2009, the National Council for Palliative Care set up the Dying Matters Coalition to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement.

During Dying Matters Awareness Week, the coalition urged people to take the opportunity to talk openly with those closest to them about their wishes on future care, dying, death and bereavement. This year's theme is The Big Conversation with the message - "Talking about dying won't make it happen."

It is a conversation which Lorraine (57) holds often in her job.

She says: "As a social worker you get the opportunity to build up a relationship with patients and their families. We can reassure people that we are very comfortable having these conversations. And, although we don't jump right in and talk about death and dying, we can encourage them to discuss any issues that may be on their minds.

"Maybe some people have things they want to do but don't want to discuss with their husband or wife because they don't want to upset them.

"If their partners are very tearful or anxious we might suggest that they go ahead and record their wishes and write them down. These can be given to their family after their death.

"We often have people tell us that it is a conversation they hate and they don't know how to start. But there can be great relief when they do discuss it and especially for relatives, as they will know their loved ones' wishes and can fulfil them.

"For those who don't discuss it, there can also be regrets about not knowing how their loved one wanted their funeral. And sometimes family members can disagree on how things should be, so it is important to talk about it, and it can make things so much easier for those left behind."

Working with terminally ill people day-in and day-out has given Lorraine a special appreciation of life and she says she loves her job and couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Married to Stephen (64), a school caretaker, they have two sons, Gary (34) and Jonathan (32) and two grandsons, Jamie (9) and Kyle (8).

She explains: "It is a strange job, but it is brilliant and a very satisfying job. People tend to over-glamorise palliative care work, saying it is a privilege, but it really is. It never ceases to amaze me how people let you into that part of their life.

"It is very rewarding being able to help patients write letters to their families. And sometimes we are asked to pass them on after their death.

"It is rewarding to be able to help at such an emotional time. We have a great team and we support and look out for each other and try to protect ourselves.

"I've got my husband at home and my family and it makes you appreciate what you have."

The aim of Dying Matters Awareness Week is to get as many people as possible thinking, talking and planning for what happens when we die.

The idea is to ensure that we all can get the care and support we want, where we want it, at the end of our lives.

Even just having a chat with family, friends or colleagues about the importance of preparing for death can change perceptions, experts say.

The new adult hospice on the Somerton Road in Belfast will be open and caring for people within weeks.

And this week is an important one for the charity, as it opens the doors of the new building to invite donors, staff, volunteers and anyone else interested to see first-hand what the support of the public and donations have made possible.

Money still needs to be raised to fit out the bedrooms, and TV personality Eamonn Holmes has lent his support to a new campaign to help in this final stage.

Eamonn and wife Ruth Langsford have appealed for donations to pay for the equipment and furnishings required to fit-out the new hospice; £15 will buy a specialist pillow, £78 a shower chair and it will take £1,700 for each patient bed.

The new hospice will include an in-patient unit, day hospice services and an education and research centre.

As well as skilled nursing care, staff like Lorraine will be helping patients and their families to manage expectations about their end-of-life care and bereavement.

Lorraine welcomes the awareness being created about death thanks to the campaign, adding: "It is very important that people discuss their wishes with their loved ones.

"When people find it hard to bring the subject up we try to create the atmosphere which will allow them to feel comfortable talking about death and dying. It is not a taboo subject for us.

"Often families don't want to talk about it because they don't want to give up hope. And, as people do look towards special events such as a family birthday or a child starting school, they tend to put it off, thinking they will still be around to see that. It can be difficult to face the fact they are dying.

"People do feel relieved when they have their plans in order. Even people who are not ill should make plans about what they want for their own future care and share them with their families; issues such as whether you want to be cremated or buried and also making wills or funeral arrangements.

"For those who don't, the families can be left wondering how a loved one would have wanted things to be and that can lead to a lot of heartache as well.

"I would urge people not to be afraid to have the conversation - it is a good opportunity to share your wishes with your loved ones."

Lorraine also urges people to consider children and to talk to them about what it means to lose a loved one.

She adds: "People should consider how children are managing and the guidelines are to give information to children in stages and avoid the 'big talk'.

"No matter how sad the news is, children will cope if they are told in a loving and caring way."

Try this

Some simple steps that you can take to make your end of life experience better, both for yourself and for your loved ones, are:

• Make a will

• Record your funeral wishes

• Plan your future care and support

• Register as an organ donor

• Tell your loved ones your wishes

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