How to open up the conversation around death and dying

There are only two experiences that each one of us will share: being born, and dying.

But while we celebrate and plan for the birth of a new baby, many of us find talking about death and dying too difficult or taboo a subject to even speak about. And when the mere mention of the inevitable end can stir up uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety or embarrassment, or create an awkward atmosphere, there rarely feels like a right time to bring it up.

However, having these conversations before we have to have them, gives those around us the opportunity to air their fears, concerns, thoughts or wishes openly and in a relaxed environment.

Broaching the subject

We will all deal with the loss of a loved one at some point in our lives, and so talking more honestly about death and dying, can generally help to make it seem less scary.

However, a person who is dying might find it tricky to broach the subject of their death with close family and friends, and may be met with a conversation stopping, “Oh don’t talk like that. You’ll be around for a long time yet.” Equally, someone who is not dying but curious about the subject may also get the same response when trying to talk about their death.

Seeing death or the act of dying as something that will happen in the far off future leads to a feeling of uncertainty and an unpreparedness when the situation arises. Talking about it all often, openly and in simple language means we know our loved ones will understand what we want for our own death and we will know what they want for theirs.

Why it’s important

It is, of course, completely understandable that we may not want to even think about losing that person closest to us. But if we do lose them, and they weren’t given the opportunity to tell us their thoughts for their funeral or burial, we might be left worrying our loved one is not getting the send-off they would have wanted, and wishing we had taken the chance to speak with them about it when they were still here with us.

These discussions can help prompt will arrangements, getting finances sorted, what music or hymns are wanted at a funeral, wishes around organ donation or life-support machines, or what we would like to happen in our final moments. Seeing where the conversation leads can make for some very interesting and philosophical conversations too.

Kids shouldn’t be left out or sheltered from these conversations either. Losing a close friend or family member will affect them just as much as it will affect us. Giving them the space to ask the questions they need to, will help them to make more sense of it and often the situation less daunting.

Tips from an expert

Sheridan McGinlay, complex care lead nurse at HMP Dartmoor, regularly leads a ‘Living with Cancer’ patient forum group for prisoners at HMP Dartmoor. Sheridan suggests that the best way to move these types of conversations forward, once you’ve got it going, is with silence. She said: “What I have learnt is that silence in these conversations is the most powerful tool as patients have the space to open up more.

“With end of life or palliative care, talking and decision making around death and dying is forced to the surface for our patients because of their situation. And, more often than not, the tone is one of fear of the unknown for them and their families’. If we, as a society, could be open and free to talk about death more regularly, not in a morose way, but out of curiosity and remove the stigma, then it will be a much less scary prospect for everyone.”

Sheridan gave us her top tips for starting open conversations around death and dying:

  • Use an opportunity when the subject of death or dying arrives naturally. For instance, if there is a plotline death on TV, or you see a bus-stop advert for a funeral director or will writer, or read an article in the newspaper about someone on a life-support machine. Let these moments kick start a meaningful conversation with questions such as, if you could choose your death, how would you prefer to die? What songs would you want played at your funeral? That reminds me, I still haven’t done my will yet, have you got one? If you were on life-support, would you want to be kept on it?

  • Be honest, tell them that you would like to talk about what you both want for your deaths should anything happen to the other, so you can both be prepared if and when the time comes.

  • Try and have some fun with it. Death doesn’t always have to be serious. Talking about wanting everyone at your funeral to be dressed up as characters from Star Wars or Eastenders, or having the Jurassic Park theme tune playing as guests leave, is bound to make them smile and encourage them to see a lighter side too.

  • You may face resistance when trying to talk about this sometimes frightening subject, but tackling it when the person is in the right frame of mind is a good place to start. However, you don’t want to push them if they really don’t want to talk about it. Let the conversation end and try again another day.

  • Talking about death and dying can get emotional. This is not a bad thing. Crying and feeling emotional is a natural response to a heavy subject or situation. Keep it a safe space in which all emotional responses are welcomed, observed, listened to and let go of. Silence is often the best response to letting someone get out everything they wish to.

  • And remember, if someone brings up the topic with you, it’s usually because they want or need to have the conversation. Be patient, no matter how difficult you may find it, listen to what they have to say and consider your response. It could end up being the conversation you both needed.

Living for today

Having the big conversations can ground us in our mortality and help us to come to terms with the fact that we will all eventually die, and that it may happen in an instant.

In understanding this, we can then allow ourselves to accept death’s inevitability and in the process learn to live more fully and contentedly in the moment, appreciating the little things in life as well as the big things. It too can help us to seek out the right balance between our responsibilities and living for ourselves, between saving for a rainy day and living for today.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash