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Talking about dying

Talking about dying can be very difficult and people often avoid the subject. Sharing your feelings can help everyone involved to cope better. 

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.

Not talking about death can:

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

Unless someone brings up the subject of death, you might not know if everyone really understands the situation – including the person who is dying. It can be hard to know what to say, which 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 you won’t be able to cope with talking about it and will leave.

Talking to someone who is dying

The dying person might find it hard to come straight out and say they are scared, or that they would like to talk. Instead, you might need to watch out for signs.

For example, they might say things like ‘Well, I suppose 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 change the subject or say that everything will be OK. You might want to say, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine, just you wait and see’ or ‘Let's not talk like that – things will work out’.

But it's very helpful to let the person know that you're 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 they won’t know what to say. So here are some suggestions that could help you feel more able to have these conversations.

Things you could say

Starting the conversation

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.

Encouraging them to talk

You can encourage the person who is dying to talk more about their feelings by saying things like this:

  • 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 that's 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?

Things to avoid

Try not to offer advice. Things you might find helpful may not suit other people.

Avoid saying things 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 isn't 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 other people find it easier to talk to people they don’t know so well, as it isn’t quite so emotional. 

If you bring up the subject and the person doesn’t respond, it's probably best to leave it. Although they might know they are dying, some people don’t want to talk about it. Or they need to be thinking about something else. 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 some people believe that talking about death may make the person die sooner than expected. It's worth being sensitive to this.

But most people will want to talk about what is happening at some point. It's very natural to want to share your feelings and fears with someone you trust.

When it's too hard to talk

Some people might find it too hard to discuss things openly with the people closest to them.

You might 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 can also help some people get through this difficult time.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.