talking to loved one about death and dying

Most people these days would prefer not to talk about death. The subject matter itself makes them uncomfortable, let alone the emotions about such finality or unease it conjures. Still, for most, this conversation is immensely beneficial — not only for the dying individual but also those they leave behind. With this, there are several ways to minimize the awkwardness and uneasiness associated with such subject matter and infuse the interaction with support. 

1. Sit on the same level as the person.

Our stature during a conversation can communicate almost as much as the content of our speech. When speaking to a dying person, especially when delivering difficult information, try to bring your face level with their face as much as possible. This signifies that you are there with them in a supportive capacity. 

2. Put aside any objects between you and the person. 

Whether we realize it or not, we often use objects in a room to shield ourselves from discomfort. A phone may feel like an escape hatch from a socially awkward encounter. A book may be a quick change of subject or focus when the topic becomes displeasing. When speaking to someone about death — their impending death or your own — strive to remove any barriers. Even sitting across the table from a person can make them feel that much more distant from you or that your differing fates are emotionally separated by the piece of furniture. And, of course, silence all phones and put them entirely out of sight. 

3. Speak to the person straight forward in an open body posture. 

Those speaking about dying want to feel heard as much as possible. Crossing your arms or legs or sitting sideways (such as in a car) does not tell them you are ready to listen to what they have to say carefully. When you speak about death or dying, make sure to be presenting an open body posture that says, “I’m listening.” 

  • Align your shoulders with their shoulders — striving to keep your collar bones parallel with theirs’. 
  • Keep your legs uncrossed. 
  • Keep your hands and arms resting comfortably on your knees or thighs — not crossed over your body. 
  • Keep your hands fully visible — out of pockets, behind your back, or away from the sides of the seat of your chair.
  • Do not recline or lean sideways against an object in a casual manner. Instead, lean slightly forward in their direction.
  • Keep your feet aligned with theirs.
  • Gesture with open palms to signify your support.

4. Signify that you’re listening with responsive behavior. 

Even after removing all previously-mentioned obstacles to the conversation, it’s still possible for the person to not feel they have your full attention if you’re not responding appropriately.

  • Keep natural eye contact with the person while speaking and listening.
  • Gesture that you’re listening with appropriate nods or responsive — not reactive — facial expressions. Remain mindful of what your face is saying and how it may differ from your words or notions. 
  • Consider if bodily contact may be appropriate — such as holding their hand while speaking or occasionally touching their shoulder or knee for comfort or to express your dedication to their support. The decision to employ bodily contact will depend on the individual and your relationship. 
  • Delivering a warm smile when discussing one’s support network can go a long way towards helping someone feel loved and taken care of, but remember to keep the appropriateness of certain facial expressions in mind. 

5. Conclude with as much warmth as possible (and is appropriate). 

Speaking to someone about death or dying can feel immensely disorienting. Such conversations can almost feel like the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Do your best to provide loving assurance and your dedication to supporting them. Make sure to summarize the next steps in their care and give them a means of contacting you. Concluding with a hug or other bodily contact—a handhold, a gentle shoulder squeeze, a kiss on the cheek, etc.—any actions to soothe anxiety may be helpful.

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