Talking about dying
Many of us have specific wishes about how we would like to die, or how long we want doctors to try to keep us alive, or what we would like to happen after our death.
There may be important matters you want to address now rather than when time is short. Some of this can be done in an impersonal way: sorting out a will, or organ donation, takes a phone call to the right person. But for some of the most important matters, such as how you’d like to be cared for, the starting point is your family or loved ones. You need to talk to them about your wishes.
What to do if you want to start a conversation
Starting the conversation, particularly with those close to you, is never easy. We don’t want to sound gloomy, upset ourselves or upset others. But families commonly report that it comes as a relief to everyone once the subject is brought out into the open. If one person raises it honestly and openly, it gives others the chance to start having their say about their own death too.
There is no right way or wrong way to talk about dying: it’s up to you and those close to you. Choose the right place, the right time. No one finds it easy to talk when they’re rushed or in a stressful situation.
Look for a prompt that the other person is happy to talk about the future: for example, discussing retirement plans may be a good time to talk about it.
- Beginning with a question rather than a statement: “Have you ever wondered what would happen…?”; “Do you think we should talk about…?”
- Sometimes it helps to start with something direct but reassuring, like: “I know that talking about these things is never easy…” or “We’ve never talked about this before but…”
- If you’re starting the conversation, you may need to reassure the other person that you’re not raising the subject because you’re very ill and have been withholding the information from them.
- Be totally honest about how you feel from the start. If you’re open, there may be either laughter or tears – don’t be afraid of either.
- Listen to what the other person is saying, rather than always steering the conversation yourself.
Bear in mind...
Though others may initially want to change the subject when you talk about dying, talking about it will ultimately make their lives easier.
If you’re very worried about getting it wrong with those you love, you can always discuss it first with someone else you respect and trust – a nurse, friend or work colleague, for example.
There are a range of organisations that can help you plan the support and care you need towards the end of life, advise on writing wills and living wills, and provide advice on the emotional issues surrounding dying. They can be found here.
Healthtalkonline, an award-winning charity website, lets you share in other people's experiences of health and illness. As part of their work they interviewed 41 people and one carer about their experiences of living with a terminal illness. Watch and hear the interviews.
Avert.org, a charity aimed at averting HIV and AIDS worldwide, offers useful information relevant to any terminal illness or chronic/progressive condition.