Tomorrow, February 14th is going to be an unusual day for those who like to mark Valentine’s Day and for whom Ash Wednesday is part of their faith. This year, they both occur on the same day!

Around the world, people will gather to receive the ashes on their forehead and hear the words  “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” on what is known as Ash Wednesday – the first day of what is known as the Season of Lent.  Those words are certainly not anyone favourite words, but they represent a truth which is important to remember from time to time – our own mortality.  Ash Wednesday every year, is a sober reminder that we are mortal – not immortal.  Acknowledging our humanity, our vulnerability, our mortality, helps us to live more fully.

Do we need to be a Christian to do that?  No.  Do we need to have experienced an Ash Wednesday service before?  No.  Do we need to be connected to a church to do that?  No.  All we need to do is accept our mortality, allow the ashes to be a sign – an outward symbol of what is hoped would happen internally and a commitment to be the best we can be – that we recognize that our mortal life is a gift, and commit ourselves (with the help of the Holy One if that is part of our belief), to use the rest of our mortal life to the very best of our ability. 

Side bar – interestingly, the imposition of ashes, is not just a Christian tradition. It was an ancient Jewish tradition and was a public sign of an individual’s repentance.  By the seventh century, the Christian church adopted it as part of the Church’s Lenten preparation before the Season of Easter.

The ‘imposition of ashes’ can take various forms: sprinkle ashes into the palm of one’s own or a family member’s hand and apply it to the forehead; use a cotton Qtip, dipped into the ashes and placed on the forehead.  Some groups/congregations give members dirt, seed and water instead of ashes, acknowledging that from the dust of the world, new hope springs. 

Some churches encourage people to mark their hearts with the sign of a heart (or the Cross) as an outward and visible sign of their intention to turn their heart to God and experience God’s unconditional love and forgiveness in a new way, saying the words “Dust I am and to dust I shall return.” Whatever way each of us chooses to observe Ash Wednesday, may we enter with humility and gratitude.

This year, Valentine’s Day is also happening tomorrow on February 14th. It is a day where people talk about love and try to express love by giving flowers/heart-shaped cards, chocolates. But could there be more? Could something more happen on this duo-day of emotion?

This year on Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day, could we love our families sufficiently that we have the “I don’t want to have this discussion with you, but it’s time” conversation with them? You know the conversation … it’s about the reality of our death.

Could we talk about the inevitability of death in general and about our own death in particular … talk about how we hope we would die (most of us want to be home, go to sleep and not wake up); talk about the “What if’s” (what if we don’t die at home in our sleep? what if we are riddled with pain? what if we face a future of permanent care in an institution etc); talk about, what would we want to have with us if we find ourselves in institutional care or are receiving palliative care in a facility or at home and even our view about MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying).

Such a talk would not only be for ourselves, but for our loved ones, so that should something terrible happen, should “it” – or the illness get to a level where institutionalization, palliative care etc. need to be addressed and our families have to make decisions on our behalf, they will be doing so in accordance with our wishes.

But if we don’t have “the conversation” with our adult children/partner/best friend – whoever – they will be at a loss and their confusion about ‘what to do’ will be added to the fear, anxiety, grief they feel when they get “the phone call/text/email.”

I have sat by the bedside over the years of countless people who did not have any such conversation with their loved ones because they “didn’t want to worry them,” “didn’t want to upset them”, “stress them”. So, they did not have that conversation. When “it” happened, their family members, dealing with a wide variety of emotions, were faced with a parent/partner/loved one dealing with a stroke/untreatable illness/inoperable results from a vehicle accident, would tell me how much they wish they knew what their loved one would want them to do at such a time.

So in keeping with the theme of Valentine’s Day “love” and the theme of Ash Wednesday’s “mortality”, let’s have that difficult conversation – for them.

Let’s sit down for a serious conversation and begin in your own words. For me, with my adult son, it was along these lines — “This is a difficult subject and I want to talk about it with you.” I wasn’t seriously ill; I wasn’t facing a traumatic event; no “reason” to have such a discussion at that time other than I loved him enough to talk about the eventuality of my death and let him know my wishes.

So I told him where my Will was, told him about the specifics of my wishes (duly signed and witnessed via a Representation Agreement – in some places it is Living Will); spoke to him about which of the three levels of DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) I would want if faced with such a situation; we spoke of ‘service’ should I die and that would be his decision at the time – no “must have” a service; mentioned where I would want my cremains to rest; what funeral home had my pre-paid plan; showed him where I kept paperwork about lawyer / house / car / insurance / banking / computer / social media / income tax info / etc.; gave him a list (if I had to go into permanent institutional care), of things which I thought might help my transition. And, I put some of that (esp. the DNR info) in an envelope on the front door of my fridge as that is the only place First Responders go to check such information.

Such a talk would not be an easy discussion, by any stretch of the imagination. But it is one that we all need to have. And have that conversation now – while we are able to make our wishes known.

Don’t wait. Do it on Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday this year. Then it will have been done, and you can be at peace, knowing that you will be helping your loved ones at a time when they must deal with the reality of the serious illness/death of someone they dearly love – you.

© June Maffin

Artwork: © June Maffin with deep appreciation to Jessica Davies of Salted Pink Studio ( who designed this butterfly.