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Zoe Mitchell is dying to talk

Zoe Mitchell believes effective communication can make or break a good death.

Western Australian social worker Zoe Mitchell won Palliative Care Australia’s inaugural ‘Emerging Leader’ prize in 2015 for her untiring patient advocacy and commitment to palliative care. Ms Mitchell works at the Fiona Stanley Hospital.

Below, Zoe answers questions from the Dying to Talk Discussion Starter. For support in discussing your end-of-life wishes with your loved ones, download it from

If you had a condition that you could not recover from, what would be important to you, towards the end of your life?

As a palliative care social worker, I have been privileged to spend time with patients and their families during very vulnerable and special moments. I am always amazed at how selfless most patients are. They worry about their loved ones being ok and don’t want to create added stress.

I am young, but family has always been a priority for me. If I was approaching the end of my life, my attitude would be similar. I would want to spend as much quality time with my family as possible. I’d hope to be aware of their presence, engage in meaningful conversations and hear their voices. I’d like to have someone to help me with practical tasks, to reduce any burden on my family and loved ones.

I believe good communication can make or break a good death. I would want my health team to be upfront and honest with me and ensure that my family and I fully understood the situation. I would not waste energy or time on futile treatments and investigations, so early discussions about our options (and I mean ALL options, not just the options that look good on paper) would be so important to making informed decisions, as a family.

Are there any pets that you would like to see or be with you, if this is possible?

I have a beautiful, crazy, little puppy called Phoebe. She is a nine-month-old black silky terrier cross Pomeranian. She only weighs about 3kgs, but she thinks she rules the world.

Phoebe always seems to know when something isn’t quite right. If I’m not feeling too well she is right next to me, wanting a cuddle.

So if I was approaching the end of my life, I would definitely want her there with me, sitting on my head and giving me licks.

I’m terrified of anything with more than four legs that can move, jump or crawl. So if I suddenly become agitated or distressed, I’d be grateful if someone could check there isn’t a creepy-crawly insect in the room!

Would you prefer a quiet environment or do you prefer activity and chatter around you?

I love talking and listening, which is part of why I love being a social worker. Give me an environment where I am surrounded by people talking, laughing and sharing stories. I would like to engage in those conversations, but if I can’t, being able to hear voices would be enough.

I can’t imagine experiencing dying without my supportive partner Greg by my side. Lying in bed, just holding his hand, would make me feel safe.

Having worked with families, I know it can be lovely to have lots of people around, but it is so important to spend one-on-one time so everyone can say what they feel they need to say.

I’d want to spend time with my mum, who has been with me through thick and thin, and my brother Ben as we are incredibly close, as well as my dad and step-mum and other brother.

Would you like music to be playing and if so, what style or what music?

Music has been a massive part of my life. I studied music throughout high school and I play the saxophone (or at least I used to — I still own four but sadly haven’t touched them in a couple of years now. I must get back into it!). I also love to sing in the shower.

Music is so therapeutic. It has always been part of my self-care. I would definitely want music of any style playing in the background at all times.

My Spotify playlists has rock, pop, punk, hip-hop, heavy metal, disco and definitely jazz! My partner Greg thinks he is the music playlist king so, I am pretty sure he would make me an extensive playlist.

If possible would it be important to you to have time outside?

I would hope to get outside, even just to feel a cool breeze or the sun on my skin. Perth can get hot though, so some days it might be more comfortable to just look out the window. I am a redhead, so I don’t want to deal with a bad case of sunburn on top of any other symptoms!

I have always been a people watcher, so I’d like to be able to see outside to some greenery or the street from my bed. Even if my body is beyond the point of healing, I think nature can help to heal the mind and soul.

Is there anyone particular you would like to see or talk to?

I would hope get to see the specialist palliative care team. Then I would know that my wishes would be taken into consideration and that I would have a team of advocates to ensure I get to live well until I die.

Is there anything else you can think of that you would like?

I enjoy cooking almost as much as I enjoy eating, so I hope I can still enjoy sharing small nibbles of good cheese or the smell of a home cooked roast. If I can’t eat, I’d enjoy a good gin and tonic from time to time, and I’d hope to have some decent wine or champagne by my bed.

I would like lots of colour and brightness in the environment where I am dying and as part of my funeral. I want my funeral to be a big party and I’d like to take part in planning it (I’m not one to miss out on a party!).

What is on your bucket list of things you would like to do or achieve before you die?

I’ve seen a lot of the world, but I want to see more of New Zealand, UK, Asia and Australia.

I am very lucky to have found a speciality that I love and to be so passionate about it at quite a young age. I hope I have a large amount of life left to be able to dedicate to palliative care – either through clinical work, research, mentoring, education or advocacy!

I am a fairy-tale princess at heart, so I would also love to get married and maybe even start a family. I would love to live long enough to grow old with my better half.

How did you feel during the process of completing this form? Was there anything about the process that interested or surprised you?

Sitting down and answering these questions, I was surprised to find things I hadn’t really thought about before.

The process has confirmed for me the importance of having conversations about death and dying. While death and dying are becoming more normalised within society, I think we have a long way to go.

This article was first published in Palliative Matters. It is reproduced here courtesy of Palliative Care Australia.


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