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Talking about dying

Coping with cancer

This page tells you about talking about dying. There is information about

 

Why it’s helpful to talk about death

Beginning to talk about dying takes courage and effort. But most people say it is a relief to talk about it openly and be direct and honest. It can bring people closer together when they talk honestly about death and share their fears and hopes.

Talking about dying can be very difficult and people often avoid the subject. It's even fair to say it is socially taboo for many people in the UK - something that just isn't done in company. But sharing your feelings can help everyone involved to cope better. Not talking about death can

  • Create tension between people, even if they are usually close
  • Increase fear, sadness, loneliness and anxiety

If no one brings up the subject of death, you may not know if the person who is dying really understands the situation. It can be hard to know what to say and then this can create a barrier between you. Most people who are dying usually do know that they are dying. But they may avoid the topic so that they don’t make you feel uncomfortable. Or they may be afraid that if they talk about it you won’t be able to cope and will leave.

 

Talking to someone who is dying

The dying person may not be able to come straight out and say that they are scared, or that they would like to talk. Instead you may need to watch out for signs that they would like the chance to talk. For example, they may say ‘Well, I guess things are coming to an end now’, or ‘things seem very final at the moment’. Or they may hint at being frightened of dying.

It can be very tempting to close the subject down and answer them in a way that avoids discussing things further - ‘Oh, things will be fine, just you wait and see’ or ‘let's not talk like that - things will work out’. But it is very helpful to let them know that you are willing to talk and to listen. People who are dying can feel scared that they will be left alone to die, without anyone to listen to them or look after them.

It is important to allow them time to talk. Don’t change the subject, even if one of you starts crying. Crying is a very normal reaction and can release a lot of feelings and emotions. Listen carefully to them, even if they say the same thing over and over again - this is common when people are in such emotional situations.

When faced with talking to someone about their death, most people are worried that they won’t know what to say. So below, there are some suggestions that may help you feel more able to have these conversations. We have a section about the questions that someone who is dying may ask that you may find helpful.

To start a conversation, it can help to say things like ‘I know this is very difficult, but maybe it would help if we talked about how we feel, and what the future may bring’. Let them know that you feel sad too. Sharing feelings will help you both cope better.

You can encourage them to talk more about their feelings by saying things like

  • How are you feeling?
  • Are you finding this difficult?
  • You must be feeling a lot of emotions at the moment
  • Is there any one thing worrying you the most?
  • Do you feel frightened all the time or just sometimes?
  • Is there anything you want to talk about?
  • Do you worry more at night?
  • Is there anything that helps you feel calm?

Try not to offer advice - things you might find helpful may not suit other people. Try to avoid expressions like ‘I know exactly what you mean’ or ‘I have felt like that before’.

 

When it’s not acceptable to talk about death

People react to and talk about dying in different ways. This depends on many things, including their

  • Personality
  • Age
  • Current relationships
  • Spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs

In some situations it is not acceptable to talk about death. Many people don’t feel comfortable talking about such a personal matter with anyone but those closest to them. But others find it easier to talk to people they don’t know so well, as it isn’t quite so emotional. If you broach the subject and they don’t respond, it is probably best to leave it. Some people are in denial about their cancer. Although they may know they are dying, part of their mind refuses to accept it. This can be a way of coping with the cancer. People need to be allowed to come to terms with the situation in their own time.

Some cultures believe that talking about death is disrespectful to the person who is ill. Or that talking about death may make the person die sooner than expected. But, at some point most people will want to talk about what is happening. It is very natural to want to share your feelings and fears with someone you trust.

 

When it’s too hard to talk

Some people may find it too hard to discuss things openly with those closest to them. You may find it helps to talk to someone from outside your circle of friends and family. Your doctor, nurse or another health care worker may be able to help. Professional counselling may also help some people get through this difficult time.

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Updated: 5 March 2014