Talking about death and dying

Chatting while having a cup of tea

If you want to have a conversation about death, whether you’ve received a diagnosis or want to break bad news, here are some pointers to help you.

  • Talk face-to-face if you can, ideally somewhere safe and private. Turn off potential interruptions such as phones, radios and televisions.
  • Where you can’t talk face-to-face, be sensitive to the impact that the conversation may have on the person hearing or reading your information.
  • It may help to prepare yourself by rehearsing what you are going to say.
  • Try to stay to the point if you can. Use plain, simple language.
  • People who hear bad news may not be able to take everything in. Check they understand what has happened, and encourage them to express their feelings. Be prepared to repeat yourself if necessary.
  • Some people need physical space to take in bad news – be sensitive to whether they want to be touched or held.
  • Don’t promise anything that you can’t deliver.

How to listen well

It’s not always easy to respond when someone tells you they have a serious illness or have suffered a bereavement. Here are some tips to help.

Be respectful. Don’t force your religious or spiritual viewpoint onto the person unless you are sure that they want it or share it.

Be honest. You don’t need to have a clever response, or try to deny what’s happening. Just being there and listening can be a bigger help than you might think.

There is a place for humour, but follow the cues of the person you’re talking to. For some people, making a joke can help them to deal with the issue, but you don’t want them to think you’re not taking them seriously.

Use engaged body language. Don’t be afraid to look your relative or friend in the eye. Be alert and attentive to what they are telling you, and the way they are saying it.

Stay calm. It’s natural to feel upset, afraid, or even embarrassed. Breathe slowly to calm yourself. But remember it’s ok to cry – this can help your loved one to grieve too.

Let your loved one know that you’re there for them to talk to, but leave it up to them.

Don’t feel you have to talk all the time. Just being there is important.

Some ways to talk about death and dying

‘Is there anything you want to talk to me about?’

‘Perhaps there’s something bothering you which you want to tell me about?’

‘What can I do to help you at the moment?’

‘If you become really ill, would you like me to sit with you?’

‘If you become ill, what medical care would you like?’

‘Have you thought about what kind of service you would like at your funeral?’

‘If there ever comes a time when you want to talk about something or you feel frightened, please do tell me’.

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