Julie Hassard is the Founder and Principal of Doing Dying Better, a holistic consultancy specialising in the end-of-life experience. Julie is helping to demystify death and dying, in a way that makes living better. She is on a quest to help improve the profile of dying. “I want to make change. I want to change the way people think about, and do dying.”
When we caught up we spoke about life, death, family and creativity. Before we begin it’s important to make clear that Julie’s business, Doing Dying Better, is not morbid, sad or negative, it is life. And it’s the pointy end of life – where what you do and what you say really do matter.
Julie is passionate about people having conversations about dying, preparing for what is one of life’s inevitabilities. While Julie has experienced the loss of close family and loved ones, she doesn’t accept that she’s had a lot of tragedy in her life, but rather sees it as life – it is the way things unfold. We all will die – some of us young, some of us old.
Prompted by a significant birthday, Julie looked hard at her life and decided that she would choose an alternative to just ‘rolling on’ in life. A little bit of introspection, which included thinking about death – her own death and that of the people she has lost, has helped her live better. The choices she makes are underscored by this understanding that no one lives for ever.
Julie has worked for many years in women’s health, and health promotion and education. She has worked with various cancer networks over her career, including the Cancer Council Victoria, Breast Cancer Network Australia and Ovarian Cancer Australia. Throughout her career she has helped people navigate the difficult business of getting sick and dying, so she understands how difficult it can be.
When Julie lost her mother, she was the oldest child and the executor of her will and she recalls hoping that there was a secret letter, or list of instructions that her mother had left for her, to help her navigate her way through the hard parts of packing up someone else’s life. But there wasn’t.
Through this very personal experience, combined with her professional career, she sees that people find it really difficult to talk about dying, and many avoid the topic. Julie acknowledges that hope is important, but it can cloud reality, and lay a path for regret. If you know your loved one will die, while they are still alive you have time to say what you want to say, once they are gone the chance is lost. She has seen too many people regret not having those important conversations.
Specifically, she runs a program that’s called ‘Discover, Decipher, Decide’ – it’s primarily aimed at staff working with those facing the end of life, but she offers a number of programs and presentations related to Doing Dying Better. This particular program is designed to help, not just the dying, but those that look after the dying, because even though they see it so frequently in their work, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are comfortable with the process.
It’s to help staff to get in touch with their own mortality, explore how we experience death in Australia, and to feel more confident about talking to that man who says ‘I’m afraid of death’. It looks at ways that staff can support each other when the burden of working with dying gets too heavy.
While the program looks at the ‘big picture’ of dying, it is underscored by taking action, working out what each person can do to make this fraught experience more positive. What is interesting about Julie’s program, is that while it is about death and dying, the overarching goal is about trying to live well.
“If people can be a bit more awake to the fact that we’re here, we are grateful that we’re here, but we are not here forever. So do the things you want to do, tell the people you love, that you love them…clear away a bit of the busy and slot some joy in.”
Outside her professional life, Julie is a mother (her son is grown up and now lives in Europe) and is a painter, amateur photographer and the person behind the Instagram #365beautifulproject. Part of recognising that time on this earth is finite, and encouraged by her son’s outlook on life, she quit her day job and learnt to paint. She also started her own Instagram project, where she posted a photo of something beautiful every day for a year. Julie is now using the the daily photos from the project as writing prompts, which will eventually become a book.
“I’ve had a lot of death in my life, but what it has done for me is that it’s helped me accept dying, and think more about living. Talking about dying shines the light on living”. It is this intentional living, living in the light of this knowledge that time is finite, that prompts wondrous things to happen.