How to talk to loved ones about death and dying

In our British culture, we don’t like talking about death. It’s a subject we tend to swerve through fear of causing upset or distress. But avoiding conversations can lead to people’s wishes not being heard, family fallouts, and stress and confusion when a loved one does die.

Karen Hibbert, compassionate communities lead at Keech Hospice Care in Luton, explains how talking more openly about death can help us live better, and shares her tips on how to get the conversation started.

Coming from a hospice background, our emphasis is on living well — enabling people to live life to the fullest before they die. It can feel scary asking a close friend or family member what’s important to them, but only by doing so can you help ensure their wishes are respected. This could be the big things, like where they want to spend their final days or experiences they want to have in life, through to smaller but important details, such as what music they want at their funeral.

Death is a natural part of life, much like having a baby or getting married. We’re happy to talk about birth plans and wedding venues, but conversations about death rarely happen. This is a shame, as being more open about death helps people process their feelings and think about what they really want.

Often, someone who is approaching end of life may avoid talking about it because they don’t want to upset their family; while the family avoids the topic because they don’t want to upset their relative. So we end up with a circle of silence, and wishes go unspoken.

That’s why, if you can, it’s better to have the conversation while everyone is well. Choosing to have the conversation early means you’re in control of the dialogue, rather than feeling that a looming death is forcing you into a discussion. Conversations facilitate choice. We all deserve that.

Karen’s tips for starting the conversation:

If you don’t feel comfortable going in cold, find a trigger. This could be a piece of music that comes on the radio or a storyline in a soap. You could say something like: ‘What if that happened to you? What would you want in that situation?’ This can make the conversation feel more natural than just launching in.

Don’t feel you have to have the conversation all in one go. You could get the ball rolling by asking one question and revisit the rest later. Like all important topics, it can’t necessarily be dealt with in a single sitting.

Sometimes a face-to-face conversation is harder than being alongside one another. That’s why walking and talking can help conversations flow, as can chatting during a car or train journey.

Don’t worry if someone responds to your conversation-starter by falling silent. It doesn’t mean you’ve offended them. More likely they need space to consider the question. It might be the first time your loved one has been asked about their wishes and they want time to give a proper answer or to decide whether they want to answer at all.

Far from being offended you’ve asked, you might find your loved one appreciates you’ve been courageous and considerate enough to give them space to talk. The more we talk openly about death, the more fuller our lives become.

About Lisa Baker, Editor, Wellbeing News 4262 Articles
Editor Lisa Baker is passionate about the benefits of a holistic approach to healing. Lisa is a qualified Vibrational Therapist and has qualifications in Auricular Therapy, Massage, Kinesiology, Crystal Healing, Seichem and is a Reiki Master.