Dying: How to Have a Conversation About Death 

Dying: How to Have a Conversation About Death 

In this life we can be certain of two things — we are born and then, someday, we will die. Our lives between those events are less certain. We make endless choices on how to live well, spend our time, and find purpose and delight in life. We love talking about birth, the subject bringing hope and excitement. We are often engaged with talking about avoiding death or elongating life, allowing what we learn about living longer to inform our actions and behaviours. Yet, when the subject of the one experience we are all destined to share comes up, it seems that discomfort, fear, and sadness can overwhelm our curiosity or need for reassurance. In the spirit of Dying Matters Awareness Week, we want to bring attention to the importance of overcoming that discomfort and encouraging those tough conversations.

Why is talking about death so important?

For most, death isn’t something you think about until life gives it significance, be it a medical diagnosis, having children, the realisation that you or your loved ones are ageing, or even an unexpected death in your circle. It’s okay to feel scared about discussing it, but having open conversations about death can also help us to feel more prepared and alleviate some of our fears.

There are practical reasons to discuss death — through conversation we can make our wishes heard on topics such as Wills or funerals, establish what matters to us when it comes to situations like end of life care, and ensure that, when faced with death, we are able to get the support we need from employers, medical professionals, and even our social circles.

There are also emotional benefits. The fear of death is often really the fear of the unknown, so by learning more, understanding what the process looks like, and confronting those feelings, death can stop being the monster under our bed and can be something we are more at peace with. Discussing and planning for death may feel morbid, and you may feel nervous about discussing it, but having the conversation doesn’t bring it any closer to being a reality than deciding to cross that bridge when you come to it.

What are the risks if you are unable to talk about death?

For most of us, while we don’t discuss it, our wish is to die peacefully and with dignity. Only through talking about what a peaceful and dignified death looks like to us can we ensure that we get our wish. Avoiding the conversation denies us and our loved ones the opportunity for closure and comfort.

Whether it’s writing Wills, discussing our boundaries or desires for end-of-life care, or making arrangements for funerals, pets, housing, or children — having plans in place, no matter how tentatively, can relieve stress for ourselves and loved ones. Many people experience a feeling of wishing they had been more prepared or had better known what their loved one would have wanted both at the end of their lives and after their death because conversations weren’t had ahead of time. Avoiding conversations can also rob us of opportunities to express our feelings and say important things — ‘I love you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I’m proud of you,’ for example.

With death also being a complex process beyond emotions, having the right conversations can also ensure you avoid the following:

  • Legal issues surrounding power of attorney
  • Confusion around end-of-life care or life support decisions
  • Disagreements over organ donation
  • Financial and administrative issues in the case of a person having no Will
  • Poor communication means people aren’t correctly informed and therefore, miss opportunities to say goodbye
  • Not knowing a person’s preferences for their funeral or being unsure about their feelings regarding cremation, burial, or final resting place.

How to start a conversation about death

There are plenty of reasons why you might want to start the conversation about death, from a personal need to explore your feelings about it to comforting a loved one who has received a terminal diagnosis. It can even stem from positive life steps such as welcoming a baby, buying a house, or other significant commitments that would require arrangements being made in the event of a death. It’s always best to approach the topic sensitively, but if you don’t know where to begin, here are some examples of ways to go about it:

Recognise Opportunities

As we go about our day, there can be plenty of seemingly random opportunities to discuss death without having to bring it up out of the blue. Whether it’s a news story that strikes a chord, a celebrity passing, or even something we see in films, TV, or read about, sometimes the most meaningful exchanges can begin with situations external to your own life. You can allow the conversation to become more personal and deepen naturally.

Ask the Questions

We’ve all stopped ourselves at one point or another from asking questions about death but, if you’re confident you won’t cause upset, there’s no reason not to approach the subject with curiosity. Whether you enquire about a loved one you know who has passed and their memories of them or ask them more general questions like if they’ve ever arranged a funeral, pay attention to any positive experiences or any potential regrets. You can then sensitively ask more about their experience, what they would do differently, or what their own wishes would be.

Talk About Personal Experiences

Sometimes, the easiest way to approach something is by leading with your own emotions and thoughts. Bringing up what you’ve seen, how you handled it, and the way it made you feel can encourage others to do the same. Be honest with people, reassure them, and allow yourself the space to be reassured in return.

Plan Ahead

If you want to ensure you get the answers you need, it can be best to plan what you want to touch on before the talk. Think about where you want the conversation to go so that you can guide it better, think about when the person you’re talking to will be in the best place to have the discussion, and try to have the conversation in a calm and suitable setting. If there’s no time constraint, it’s okay to revisit the conversation if it’s not going well or if anyone seems too upset to continue.

Consider Priorities

Unfortunately, sometimes, we don’t get to have the conversation about death ahead of a situation becoming critical. In the case of you or a loved one not having much time, it’s important to start with what is most important. Whether you want to tackle practical matters as a priority or you wish to focus on sharing how you feel, the conversation you have is personal to what you and your loved one need. During final moments, don’t underestimate the power of a few words for healing and closure.

How to talk about death

While there is no right or wrong way to talk about death, sensitivity is necessary as it can be an especially hard subject for some. People respond to death in a variety of ways, from a serious and thoughtful approach to comfort in the form of humour, and it’s important to try to meet people with understanding. Trust your instincts when communicating with your loved ones, you’ll usually understand what tone and language they respond best to and there’s rarely any need to treat them differently to how you usually would. You won’t always know what to say or feel like you have exactly the right words, but as long as you’re considerate and authentic, often the most important thing is you just being there.

Some tips for conversations about death.

  • Be respectful of others’ beliefs
  • Be honest about your thoughts and feelings
  • Be present in the moment, not lost in thought
  • Be attentive through your body language
  • Be mindful of their body language
  • Be aware of your emotions, and try to stay calm
  • Be vulnerable and invite them to do the same
  • Be inquisitive and ask them questions
  • Be clear and try to communicate in simple terms
  • Be reassuring in your words and actions
  • Be okay with crying
  • Be comfortable being quiet instead of filling every silence
  • Be brave enough to let yourself express even the hard emotions

Questions you may have for medical professionals

Whether you are dealing with the prospect of your own death or that of a loved one, talking to those in positions of care or with expertise in the situation you are facing can be extremely helpful. The people in these positions will usually be able to answer your questions themselves or find the answers you need, and there are resources online such as through Hospice UK [https://www.hospiceuk.org/], the charity behind Dying Matters Awareness Week, to offer you support.

Some examples of questions you may want to ask are:

  • What is it like to be there when someone dies?
  • Will it hurt when I die?
  • Can a person see or hear me when they’re dying?
  • What is a dead body really like?
  • What happens to a person’s body after they die?
  • What am I supposed to do when they die?
  • What are my options in terms of care?
  • What can I do if I don’t want to be alone?
  • What do I do if I’m scared about my treatment?
  • What can I expect at a funeral?
  • Can I access support if I feel like I’m not coping with loss?
  • Who will care for me now that I’m alone?
  • Can I die at home if I want to?

Plan questions ahead of time if you need to and don’t be afraid to write down information when having these conversations. Asking these questions can be emotional so preparing what you want to ask to avoid forgetting anything can be helpful and keeping track of what you’ve been told as opposed to trying to remember it all can offer comfort.

Talking to children about death

It can be especially hard to talk to children about death and dying, and a lot of people would prefer to avoid the conversation altogether, but excluding them from important conversations can do more harm than good. It may feel like you’re protecting a child, but at some point they will encounter death and it can be better for them to be prepared for whatever that looks like, be it a pet, a family member, or even something as simple as things they see in nature.

Children will likely have questions and it’s important that they feel able to ask them openly as, oftentimes, their own imaginations, fears, or misunderstandings can be more hurtful than the truth. Helping children to understand death can ease the pain of them experiencing it down the line, and encouraging them to express their feelings and emotions can make grieving a less isolating experience for them.

Sometimes, children can actually have an easier time talking about death than adults as they are yet to notice the taboo a lot of us place on the subject. Questions a child may ask are:

  • Where do people go when they die?
  • Do dead people turn into ghosts?
  • What’s it like in heaven?
  • What does a dead body look like?
  • What happens to a body when it is buried?
  • Do people stay dead forever?
  • Does cremation hurt?

It’s most important to engage and show them that it’s okay to ask questions when they have them, so don’t worry if you don’t have the answer to everything they’re asking — it’s okay to tell them when you’re not sure about something too! Try to listen to them and understand what they’re asking, asking them questions where you need to, and answer as clearly as you can without dismissing them. Be honest and show your emotions; children learn by example and need a safe space to express themselves.

Some harder questions to answer may come up, you can find examples of how to honestly tackle them below:

Q: Am I going to die?

A: Everyone dies someday, but it probably won’t be for a long time.

Q: Are you (or a loved one) going to die?

A: One day, but most people die when they’re very old.

Q: Why do people die?

A: Everything dies as part of nature, including plants, animals, and people. It’s a natural part of the circle of life.

Q: Does dying hurt?

A: Doctors don’t think dying hurts, and if someone is sick before they die they can give them medicines to stop them feeling any pain. It’s usually very quick and peaceful.

Q: Why can’t we stop someone from dying?

A: Dying is natural so, while we can help people to live for a very long time, it’s impossible to stop people from ever dying.

Q: Is dying like sleeping?

A: No, dying is different to sleeping. When we sleep our bodies are resting and we wake up, when people die they don’t wake up. Their bodies have done their job and stop working, they’re not resting.

Q: Why do some people die when they’re young?

A: Sometimes an illness or a bad accident can cause people to die before they get old. It isn’t something you should worry about as we can’t predict it, but it’s normal to be especially sad when it does happen to people because it doesn’t feel fair.

Q: How old will I be when I die?

A: Nobody knows. We know we won’t live forever but there’s no way of guessing how old we’ll get, we just know that most people live until they’re very old.

How to handle people coming to you about death

Sometimes we’re on the other side of the conversation, be it in the workplace or our personal life, and we are the one somebody comes to about either their own death or the death of a loved one. It’s important to be sensitive and listen, providing honest answers where we can.

If you’re in a professional setting that makes you more likely to have someone approach you about death, it can be your job to provide the relevant information that a person needs depending on your role. This can be information they need about bereavement leave if you’re a manager, or even more specialised information if you work in care, for example. Some tips for if this situation should arise are:

  • Don’t leave people to flounder or have to dig for information. If you have answers then provide them clearly, if you don’t then let them know where they can find them.
  • Don’t let your fears hinder the conversation; show compassion and be a reliable person to talk to.
  • Don’t leave them to broach the subject if you know what’s going on. Show your support gently to give them the opportunity to talk about it if they need to.
  • Don’t be vague or use inaccessible language that could make them feel isolated. Part of providing reassurance is making communication clear and easy for them.
  • Do your research ahead of this eventuality so that you know policies and resources ahead of time. It’s better to be over-prepared.

Grae Matta Foundation and Founder Ferron Grae are seeking to facilitate mental health policies making care and treatment accessible and when it’s needed on a global scale. Follow our social channels for more news and updates on his visits and conversations with international governments. FacebookInstagramTwitter, TikTok and LinkedIn.