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How to talk about death: 4 top tips

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How to talk about death: 4 top tips

Ruby Lohman

Talking about death can be hard. Maybe you know you need to have the conversation – but you have no idea how to start it. Here are 4 tips for getting started.

Talking to your parents, children or other loved ones about end-of-life can be really hard. Especially if you haven’t talked much about these things before, or if they’re reluctant to do it. Or maybe you just don't know where to start.

Firstly: it’s totally normal to feel uncomfortable, nervous and out of your depth. This is a confronting conversation! In our society, many of us tend to avoid talking about death. It’s a hard thing to talk about and it’s generally not just a single conversation. Often it involves further conversations and maybe follow-up tasks like filling out forms or engaging a lawyer.

But this is really important stuff. If we wait till our loved ones are unwell, there’s a chance they’ll be too sick to talk about what they want. It’ll be too late. So no matter how hard it is, it’s really worth doing.

So here are four tips to help you get started. 

1. Begin by talking about yourself

For example: “I want to appoint someone to make my decisions for me in an emergency, so I’m getting some paperwork together to appoint a power of attorney. Have you ever thought about doing that?”

2. Bring up something or someone that’s separate from them

This could be an article, book, friend or event. This can help get the person interested and involved in the topic without feeling too confronted or uncomfortable. Some people who have been to a Death Dinner Party event have used that as an entry point. For example:

“I recently went to a dinner that was all about talking about death. One of the speakers talked about XYZ. It made me think about our family. I realised that it’s important to plan for certain things before they happen because it can make things a lot easier and clearer. And it means the person who is unwell is more likely to get what they want and need. I wondered if you’d be open to talking about a few of those things with me?”

You could also start with something like:

“I recently read an article about XYZ and it made me realise that we haven’t really talked about this stuff together. I’m not sure what you would want if something did happen with your health in the future. Would you be open to talking about it?”

3. Use indirect, non-threatening questions

If the person is uncomfortable, bring up the topic gently and indirectly. Demanding you have the discussion, or immediately asking ‘How do you want to die?’, probably won't help!

Example: “Have you been to a funeral that you thought was done particularly well? What did you think worked well?” Or: “Have you ever thought about what kind of service you might want at your funeral?” 

4. Talk about hypothetical situations, not inevitabilities (even if they are)

For example: “If you ever became seriously ill, are there particular people you’d like me to contact?” Or: “If you were ever on life support, it would be a really stressful time for all of us, and it would give us some relief if we had your wishes in writing.”

And here's a bonus tip: be patient

These are big topics, and some people will need to take time to think about them, or get comfortable with the idea of considering them at all. You may end up having a conversation in multiple parts, with the initial stage is simply about agreeing to talk about certain things.

Also keep in mind that although you might have specific questions, you don’t necessarily need to steer the conversation the entire time. If it’s happening on its own, let it flow naturally or in the way your loved one wants it to flow.

Death is a hard thing to talk about. But chatting to your loved ones about dying and end-of-life planning is so important. And it can actually be a beautiful way to connect. If you've been putting off having the conversation with someone, now's the time!

If you have any tips for starting the conversation, or any experiences you'd like to share, let us know in the comments. 

What is Death Dinner Party? Learn more. 

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