Talking About Death with Someone Who is Dying
To speak with your loved ones about death when it isn’t imminent is crucial, to speak with them when it is, is critical. Though difficult, finding a way to have these conversations can help you find solace and closure in their absence and closer to them while they are still here.
Research shows that those who have discussions about death with those in our lives who know that they are dying – and if those conversations come from a place of honesty and openness – you become closer to those you love who you may be losing as well as feel more hopeful about the future.[i]
Discussing death, especially when we are experiencing its reality first-hand, is often avoided. People naturally avoid what makes them feel uncomfortable or sad and there is also the fear that they may hurt or scare the loved one who is dying. On the other side of it, the person who is dying may want to protect their loved ones from dwelling on the loss by dodging the conversation altogether. Unfortunately, this avoidance can lead to regret in the aftermath of a loved ones passing as well as a feeling of isolation or feeling alone in your sadness as the person who is dying as well as the person being faced with surviving without their loved one.
Intellectually, death can often be difficult to grasp, let alone talk about. Especially if you have never experienced the loss of a very close relative before, it can be challenging to truly comprehend or imagine the person who is dying actually being gone. Denial is something we are all more comfortable with as it can apply to more experiences so, in the absence of being able to grasp and accept death, denial is easier than having the conversation.[ii]
It is also often the case that family members who do end up talking may not be getting to the heart of what they truly want to say. Many survivors worry that showing sadness in front of the dying person, which can happen with deeper conversations, is wrong. So instead the discussions stay on the surface which isn’t very helpful in developing the deeper communication and can cause more pain and feeling of isolation.
If people can try to take the plunge and say what’s on their minds it can blossom into a conversation that is cathartic for both parties. It can also foster a comfort in having those types of talks so that the communication persists beyond just one conversation.
According to Maureen Keeley, professor of interpersonal communication at Texas State University, there are six types of discussions that are common to those who are dying.[iii] These “final conversations” are defined by those what take place between to diagnosis that has determined that they are terminal and the eventual passing. The categories that she has identified are:
1.Conversations about love
When it comes to conversations about love, Keely says, many people are saying how much the other mattered to them in a more emphatic way than they ever have before.
With “Identity messages”, these are pieces of guidance that a dying loved one may want to pass on. These conversations can be defining and stay with survivors for a long time. Your loved one knows you very well and these types of conversations may be their way of steering you in the right direction during a time when you are certain to listen.
3.Spiritual or Religious Discussions
When it comes to spirituality, these conversations can vary widely from faith to faith, but for all who align deeply with a particular religion or higher power, reciting prayers, reading from a holy book or having discussions about the hereafter can help soothe fears and help people feel more connected to god.
Everyday Talk is the same kind of talk we have throughout life with those we are comfortable with. Before death and illness and sadness took over, you weren’t searching for the right thing to say all the time, you were just shooting the breeze, right? Living in the moment, by carrying on with a normal life can help foster positivity and peacefulness.[iv]
5.Difficult relationship talks
We have all faced challenges in relationships whether with a spouse or a child or a sibling. By discussing the challenges that you faced in an honest, but respectful way, you both may come to a place where something that didn’t quite feel resolved becomes repaired.
6.Instrumental Death Talks
Though the practicalities of death can be especially challenging because they can make it feel more real and more sterile, logical conversations about end of life care, burial plans, funeral or memorial service wishes, and other logistics are very important and certainly better to have with your loved one rather than trying to make assumptions about their wishes after they have passed on.
During this time in a person’s life where the reality of mortality is in high definition, every breath, every word, every moment can have meaning. Because of this, the discussions can have a depth that one may not experience in everyday chatter. Embracing the opportunity to have hard discussions may help you and your loved ones through this challenging time with more strength and peace-of-mind.
[iii] Keely, Maureen P. & Yingling, Julie M., Pd.D. Final Conversations: Helping the Living and the Dying Talk to Each Other 2007, VanderWyke & Burnham, Acton, MA.