Talking About Dying

Death is part of life, but it can be hard to talk about dying and grieving. The way we respond when people bring up the subject can make a huge difference. If we struggle to talk about death, it can make it harder to support a grieving friend or answer questions from loved ones. On the other hand, if we’re ready to listen, it makes it a lot easier to discuss things like wills, funeral plans, how and where we want to be cared for, and worries about the future.

You don’t need to try and be an expert. The main thing is to let the conversation flow, rather than brushing it off or looking uncomfortable.

There will often be a lot of issues to talk about, so don’t feel you need to cover everything at once. If you are discussing the end of your own life, you might want to talk about things like the type of care you would want, where you would like to die, the kind of funeral you want, the details of your will, whether you want to donate your organs and how you would like to be remembered.

There is no perfect way to talk about dying, but there are some things you can do to make it easier.

Choose your moment, it’s not easy to have a serious conversation when you are in a rush or stressed, so try and find a time when you don’t have to look at the clock and a place where you feel relaxed.

It can sometimes help to look for signs another person is happy to talk about the future. It could be you’re talking about retirement plans, or someone you know, or someone famous, has died.

You could start with a question like ‘Have you ever wondered what would happen if…?’ or ‘Do you think we should talk about…?’. This can often be a more natural way into a conversation than starting with a statement.

Be reassuring, phrases like ‘I know that talking about these things is never easy’ and ‘We’ve never talked about this before but…’ can be useful too.

Be honest about how you feel. There might be laughter or tears, but there’s no reason to be afraid of either response.

Make sure you listen to what the other person is saying too, and don’t feel the need to fill silences. They can give people a chance to bring up what’s important to them. Test the water If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, perhaps you could try out what you want to say with a friend or colleague first? If you are worried, remember that it is usually the things we don’t say, rather than the things we do, that we regret.

Take it one step at a time, don’t feel like you need to cover everything in one conversation. It might be easier to speak about things a few times, bit by bit. Try a different approach If talking about death feels too tough, there are plenty of other ways to bring it up. You could write a letter explaining what you’d like to say, or you could give someone a list explaining what you’ve loved most about your life, what you still want to do and what you want to happen in the future. Whatever you do, remember that no conversation is perfect, but by talking about death, you are helping to make the future easier for everyone.

If someone brings up the subject in conversation with you, listen carefully and make sure you give the conversation your full attention. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, no one is expecting you to be an expert. The person has come to you because they trust you, not because they expect you to have all the answers.

Be patient, it can take people a while to get to the point, especially if they are feeling nervous. Let the person know it is okay to take their time and work through things. Be encouraging If someone asks to talk to you about death. They may have a lot on their mind, so try to be encouraging, and let them know you want to listen, and that you are there for them.

Try not to judge, we all respond to death and grief differently, so remember that advice that works for you might not work for someone else. Often what people appreciate most is the chance to unload their thoughts.

It can help to ask what is important to them. This can be a useful question because it helps people focus on what they want. We are all different, and so are our wishes for when we are dying. Asking this encourages people to reflect on what is really on their mind.

Remember to look after yourself, it can be upsetting to talk about death, especially with someone close to you, so make sure you make time for yourself afterwards. If the conversation makes you think about your own end of life plans, could it be a good time to think about who you would like to have a similar conversation with?

Talking to Someone Grieving

It’s okay to feel unsure because it can be difficult to know what to say when someone loses a loved one. It is totally normal to worry about saying the wrong thing or getting in the way, but it’s usually better to do something than say nothing, and there are plenty of ways you can show you are there for someone if they need you or want to talk.

You could look for signs that someone is ready for a chat. If they mention the person who has died, try to encourage them. Even if they get upset, it’s likely to mean they want to talk.

Remember words are not always needed, sometimes it just helps to be there for someone. Let them know you are ready to talk or not talk, whatever works for them.

Don’t be upset if your support is turned down. Talking after losing a loved one can seem daunting, especially at first, just keep reminding them that they can reach out to you whenever they are ready.

Don’t worry if people repeat themselves, sometimes going over what has happened can help people come to terms with it.

Give people space, be careful not to smother people with sympathy. Often time alone is helpful to process feelings after a death.

Remember that there is no perfect way to support someone who is grieving. None of us say the right thing every time. But you just being there will mean a lot. If someone wants to talk, really listen, and ask open-ended questions. It’s a good way to get a conversation going, rather than asking questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Offering practical support can make a big difference too. You could try making a direct offer, ‘I can pick the kids up from school’ rather than saying ‘I’m here for anything you need’.

Try to keep checking in as time passes. The weeks and months after the funeral can be the hardest of all, but birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and New Year are tough for a lot of people too. Invite people to join you for social activities like going for a coffee or a walk. Even if they don’t feel up to it, it can mean a lot to be asked.

What should you be careful of?

Sometimes there are things that can upset people, even when you are trying to help.

Saying you know how someone feels can be unhelpful. Losing someone is different for everyone and saying ‘I know how you feel’ can make it seem like you’re not really listening.

Talking about time is a tricky area too. It’s easy to fall back on phrases like ‘Time is a great healer’ or ‘You’ll move on soon’, but everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace.

When you are talking to someone who is grieving, try not to dominate the conversation or act as if nothing has happened. Lots of people say they find it hard when people avoid talking about the person they have lost.

If you have a faith, try to remember that it might not help others, even if it is very important to you.

Don’t assume people are okay because they seem to be on the surface. Keep checking in and letting them know you’re there for them. It can be a long time before people feel ready to talk about what they’re going through.

Above all, remember it is better to have these conversations than to avoid them and your efforts will almost always be appreciated.