Talking About Death – 4 Tips to Start the Conversation

When I was thinking of a title for this piece I was torn between “Don’t mention the war” (referencing the comedic genius that is John Cleese from his Faulty Towers days) or “Let’s talk about death, baby” (referencing the 90’s hip hop genius that is Salt n Pepper). I’ll let you choose whichever suits your generation and leave you to guess my age knowing my pop culture references span both of these eras! It might seem that I am making light of a very serious, very personal topic, but I do this deliberately. Firstly, this is a very glib way of highlighting that we all come from different ages, cultures, upbringings, and as a result, our experiences and views about death and how we talk about death varies as widely as our pop culture references do. Secondly, and this is my ultimate aim here, I just want to get you comfortable with talking about death. I have been privileged to be an Occupational Therapist alongside those on their journey towards death (and really, isn’t that where we are all ultimately heading?). Along this road I have seen beauty, heartache, joy, regret, anger, love… and the biggest controllable influence I have seen on the experience of death and the grief journey of those involved is by far the ability of those on the journey to talk about death. I’m not saying everyone peacefully embraced the finality of this. Some went down fighting against it to their last breath, some went out partying, drinking, smoking, but there was still an element of control and “no regrets” because they were able to talk about death.  About what they wanted to do while they were still able to, how they wanted their healthcare. They had choice and control where possible because they could talk to their loved ones and their healthcare team about death. The other side I have seen is how lonely dying can be. Imagine if you were going through possibly the biggest thing to happen to you yet, a terminal diagnosis, whether imminent or more slowly progressive, and no one around talked about it. Old friends became at first awkwardly sympathetic but then slowly faded into the background, family having quiet whispered conversations just out of ear shot at annual gatherings. This has been the experience of many palliative care clients I have worked with. Friends and family feel so uncomfortable talking about death to the one going through this, so worried about saying the wrong thing and causing offence, that they end up not talking at all. And this is a recipe for regret. So, whether you are a carer of someone with a terminal diagnosis, the one on the journey to death, a mate, a daughter, brother, second cousin twice removed, or really, anyone at all, these are my top tips to get you talking about death:

  1. Nothing you say is going to kill them. Talking about death isn’t going to make it more or less likely to happen. So, what have you got to lose?
  1. Most people like to talk about themselves and what is happening to them at the moment. This is no different for those who are dying. You would ask a mate or relative how they are holding up after their knee replacement. Really, when it comes down to it, this is just another (very significant) health event.
  1. Don’t be afraid to use real words. As a brilliant palliative care nurse calls them, “the three D’s”: dead, death, dying. This is perhaps what society is most uncomfortable with. We have hundreds of words to talk about death without actually mentioning death. I firmly believe we can’t properly have a conversation about death without mentioning death, so embrace the three D’s.
  1. Don’t wait. Do what you want to do now. This road is so unpredictable. So, talk about what you want to do and do it while you can. Whether it’s a destination you’ve always wanted to travel to with a loved one or just continuing the weekly catch up with friends at the cafe or pub, have the conversations. And that goes for the friends and loved ones too. Have the conversations, make the memories when you can. Silence so often leads to regret and more grief.

Silence, in the face of death, is not golden. So talk. Talk with compassion, talk with love, talk with humour. Talk to the one who is dying, and their loved ones, about what they are going through. Or if you are the one facing death, share your thoughts. Whoever you are, by talking about death you are the one who can influence the journey to death and the grief journey afterwards with your words, your voice. So, let’s start a conversation.

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