As part of a series of powerful talks at Stanford Medicine X this morning, Andrea Wilson took the stage to talk about what might be everyone's least favorite subject. Death.
Wilson's 15-year-old sister, Adrienne (who Andrea raised from the age of eight), died in 2001 after a 147-day battle with liver cancer. As founding director of the non-profit Blue Faery, Wilson advocates for more research for liver cancer -- but she's also very passionate and vocal about the importance of speaking about death in a more open and honest way.
“We are all going to die," she said simply. "We all have death in common, but we don’t want to talk about it. Including me." It took Wilson almost six years to say the words "My sister died." Instead, she said, "I lived on euphemisms."
In our culture, we may say that someone "departed," "expired," or, heaven forbid, is "pushing up daisies," but rarely simply say that someone has died. (Wilson earned some chuckles by showing an entertaining U.S. map that outlined popular euphemisms for "died" in each state.)
In a similar vein, phrases that are meant to comfort -- such as, "She's in a better place" or "'God only gives you as much as you can handle" -- can often be painful. "These words will most likely not make a grieving parent feel better because while death it's unnatural for a parent to outlive a child. It's not supposed to happen that way," she explained.
"I recommend that what you say to someone after the death of a loved one is 'I'm sorry for your loss,' because a part of their heart is gone. It’s never coming back and there's nothing you can do."
Wilson also encouraged the audience to have the "death conversation" with loved ones before they get sick. "I wish Adrienne and I had talked about death. She was dying and kept doing her schoolwork." she said. "She didn't tell me -- she wanted to protect me." By speaking about death early, often and openly we can change the cultural taboos against it and support each other through grief more effectively, she said.
Before leaving the stage, Wilson closed her eyes and raised her head and hand to the sky for a brief moment -- a subtle, silent tribute to her sister. As is often the case at Medicine X, there wasn't a dry eye in the audience.
Previously: It's back! Stanford Medicine X returns to campus and On life, death and David Bowie: A palliative care physician shares words of wisdom