Talking about death to people you care about is not easy. But when we don’t have honest conversations about this it can increase feelings of distress, loneliness and grief. Here you will find practical advice and resources on how to tell somebody that a loved one is dying, or has died.
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How to start a conversation about death and dying
There are a number of reasons why we find talking about death and dying difficult. It could be fear of saying the wrong thing, or of hurting someone’s feelings. You could try some of these tips to start the conversation:
- Talk face to face if possible. Alternatively have the conversation by phone rather than via a written message.
- Choose a quiet, comfortable place where you are not likely to be interrupted. Turn off phones so you won’t be disturbed.
- Avoid using euphemisms such as “gone to sleep”. Using clear, honest language is important, especially if you’re talking to someone with dementia, someone with a learning disability, or a child.
How to talk about death and dying
People can have very different reactions to death depending on their attitudes, beliefs and the relationship they have with the person who is dying. It’s important to take their individual feelings into consideration, and avoid pushing anyone into talking if they don’t want to.
- Be honest. Often in difficult situations we tend to search for the ‘right’ or clever thing to say, or we deny what’s happening altogether. While this is natural – and humour has its place here too - dying is a profound process that needs honesty and understanding. Frank, open conversations can be very liberating and soothing, both for the dying person and their loved ones.
- Listen to the other person, and pay attention to their body language. Don’t be afraid to look your relative or friend in the eye when you are talking to them. Listen to their tone of voice and be aware of changes to the way they speak and behave. If they avoid eye contact for example, they might not be ready to have this conversation.
- Stay calm. You might find this kind of emotional intimacy difficult, or you might be worried about seeing your relative or friend cry, or appear helpless and vulnerable. Breathe slowly to calm yourself. Keep yourself grounded by physically feeling your feet on the floor. This will help you to be present and accepting of what is happening.
- Don't be afraid to cry. Crying is a natural response to emotionally charged situations. Being brave enough to express your grief can have a powerful healing effect on the person you’re talking to, as well as giving them permission to grieve themselves.
- Don’t feel you have to talk all the time. Simply being beside someone in silence can be hugely comforting.
- Let the person know they can talk to you if they need to. You might say, “If there ever comes a time when you want to talk about something, please do tell me”. This gives them permission to talk in their own time, without expectation.
If you're finding it hard to tell people about someone’s death, there are professionals who can help you.
- Bereavement counsellors. You might find talking to a bereavement counsellor or therapist beneficial. You can access bereavement counselling via your GP, a local counselling service, a registered psychotherapist, or charities that specialise in grief and bereavement.
- Spiritual care. Hospice chaplains can help you to talk about things that are distressing you, or to support the person that is dying. Chaplains provide spiritual care regardless of your religion or beliefs.