Talking About Death and Dying
September 4, 2021
Talking about death and dying is not easy. While having conversations about the end of life can be uncomfortable, they are an important step in ensuring that we all receive the care we deserve. With the right tools, you can have a meaningful conversation that will prepare you emotionally for your death and for others’ and ensure that proper support is in place.
Reflect on Your End-of-Life Care Wishes
Before you initiate a conversation with your loved ones, it may be helpful to take some time to reflect on the type of care you’d like to receive at the end of your life. Ask yourself, “What will matter most to me through the end of my life?” Is it important that you will be able to maintain your independence? To spend time with your family and friends? Would you prefer to live at home towards the end of your life, or in a healthcare facility? The Conversation Project’s Conversation Starter Guide includes several additional questions to reflect on. Remember, there are no right answers. Each of us will have different priorities at the end of our lives.
Once you’ve begun thinking about your priorities for end-of-life care, decide who you’d like to share those priorities with. You might choose to open up a conversation with your partner, child, grandchild, friend, spiritual leader, physician, or all of the above.
Open Up the Conversation
You’ve reflected on your end-of-life care wishes, and you know who you’d like to share them with. But how can you get the conversation started? Where do you even begin? It can be challenging to bring up the subject of dying. Starting with a question, such as, “Could you help me with something?” or “Can you and I have a conversation about my end-of-life wishes?” could be a good place to start. Using a question gently invites the other person into the conversation.
The first time you discuss death and dying with your loved one, you both may feel uncomfortable, or fear saying the wrong things. Be patient and compassionate with one another. After all, having this conversation takes courage. Remember not to push anyone into talking about death if they don’t want to. Let them know that you’re willing to listen and have a discussion when they feel ready, or when the time is right.
Continuing the Conversation and Listening Well
As you continue to talk about your end-of-life wishes with the people who are important to you, you can ask questions to invite them to share their wishes as well. Some questions you can ask to continue the conversation include:
- Have you thought about what you would want to happen at your funeral?
- What would be important to you toward the end of your life?
- Who do you want to be around you as you die?
Listen deeply as your loved one answers these questions. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand something they said. Thank them for being willing to be vulnerable with you. And at the end of the conversation, summarize what you talked about so you know you are both on the same page.
Speaking with A Loved One Who is Dying
Sometimes, you’ll want to talk about death with someone you love who is dying. These types of conversations can be especially difficult, and bring up feelings of guilt, fear, and anticipatory grief. First, it’s important to determine what your loved one wants to get out of the conversation. Some dying people will want to talk openly about death, while others will avoid it and instead focus on happy memories. A dying person might indirectly open up the conversation by asking something like, “Do you think God really exists?” or “What do you think happens after you die?” If you both are willing to talk about it, responding to these types of questions can help ease any anxiety or fear your loved one has about dying.
These conversations can also lead to an opportunity to say goodbye to one another. Both you and your loved one may feel a sense of reassurance and peace afterwards. Just remember to respect how they’re feeling, and don’t force them to talk about anything beyond what they’re comfortable sharing.
Finally, remember that saying nothing is fine, too. After all, the best gift you can give a dying loved one is your presence. Simply sharing a quiet moment together can be surprisingly healing.