Talking About Death: 7 Tips for Starting a Dialogue

Certified Grief Counselor

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Bringing up the subject of death can give shivers down some people’s spines. If you’ve started thinking about your death and planning your end-of-life experience, you’re probably thinking about talking with your loved ones about it too. And that can give shivers of a different kind down your spine.

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Are you afraid that it'll go nowhere or of hurting someone's feelings if you bring it up? Most people tend to avoid having this talk for fear of “speaking it into existence," especially if they're sick or dying. Nothing can be further from the truth. Having an open and honest conversation about death is a healthy way to discuss everyone's thoughts and beliefs about death and dying.

When you encourage these types of discussions, you're not only learning about each other's preferences and fears, you're also gaining perspective on how others think about death. Starting the conversation can be challenging and may cause some unease in the beginning. The more you talk about it, the easier it becomes to come back to it to either add to the conversation or clarify some previous thoughts.

What are the Benefits to Talking About Death? 

There are many reasons to consider talking about death with your loved ones. Some of the most important reasons are so that everyone is on the same page about their wants, needs, and expectations as they get nearer to death.

If no one ever talks about it, then you won’t know how to properly plan for end-of-life care, funerals, burials, or cremations when any one of your loved ones dies. Some of the benefits of having these discussions are listed below.

1. Eases fears about death

For some people, there's nothing worse than death or having to talk about it. They can feel discomfort and suffer psychological pain at even the thought of dying someday. When you ease them into having these conversations, their fear of death can slowly diminish over time.

They may not join in any death positivity movements, but at least you'll get them talking about what's inevitable and how they would like to see their end of life take place.  

2. Relieves anxiety

Anxiety towards death is a real psychological disorder that may lead to other more serious conditions if left untreated. The first step in coming to terms with your mortality begins with the acceptance of it.

If you feel anxious when discussing death, it may help to talk more openly about it. By learning and understanding what happens to your body at death, it may make it easier for you to cope when racing thoughts enter your mind.

3. Gets plans underway

Once you start talking about death, you’ll learn more about yourself and how you think and feel about it by listening to other’s perspectives on it. You can’t expect to be an expert on something that you may never have read about, talked about, or even considered as most people haven't.

The goal of talking about death is to get comfortable with it and explore all the options available to you. It’s also important to be comfortable with it so you can make the right decisions for your end-of-life planning that needs to take place.

4. Communicates your last wishes

One of the most important benefits of having death talks is that you get to communicate your last wishes to your loved ones. When you resist talking about death and dying, you miss out on the opportunity to let others know how you would like your end-of-life care to go. 

It doesn’t matter if you think you’re decades away from dying, or if death's knocking at your door - if you fail to let others know what you want and expect, they’ll be forced to make decisions on your behalf when you're unable to make them on your own.

Consider unexpected and life-changing events such as accidents, injury, or sudden illness and how this may affect the decisions you're needing to make about your care. 

5. Settles estate matters

Talking about death won’t settle estate matters, per se, at least not in the legal sense, but it'll get you talking about what makes up the estate and who’s scheduled to receive distributions from it. Generally, no one wants to come across as callous and insensitive by asking how much money's available and the extent of assets a dying person has.

But in truth, we're all a little curious especially when we're the immediate next of kin and have no idea what to expect. It's not that people are waiting around for the person to die, but it does help to know that there’s an estate plan in place and a schedule of distribution.

These simple talks can turn into complex issues when you fail to properly plan for death. 

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

How to Start Talking About Death With Loved Ones

Every conversation needs to have flow. You wouldn’t approach talking to kids about death the same way you would a teenager. Just as you wouldn’t talk with a 30-year old the same way you would with an elderly parent or grandparent.

It mostly has to do with having the right approach and choosing the right time to have this conversation. Below you'll find some ways that might help you start talking about death with your loved ones.

1. Discuss world events

Some topics that can be on everyone’s mind can include things like natural disasters, pandemics like COVID-19, among other unexpected events.

For example with the COVID-19 pandemic, people in nearly every country have become ill and died without regard for age or health. If this isn't enough to get the conversation going, it's going to be a tough road ahead for you on this one.

Take this opportunity to bring up the subject of death by asking, "What would you do if this were to happen to me"? Or try asking in this way, "How would you want me to handle it if you got sick?"

2. Talk about a recent celebrity death

Scour the Internet for the latest celebrity death, and it’s nearly guaranteed that you’ll find one or two well-known people that have recently died. We all want to be entertained, and celebrity-centered news always makes for great conversation especially if there’s scandal involved. 

Despite the salacious details, this is also a good segue to talk about death in general. Consider tying the reported facts to people, places, or events that are happening locally in your area. For example, if a celebrity died as a result of a drunk-driving accident, search the local papers for a similar death, and start talking about it.

You can ease into the conversation by asking questions or making statements like the following:

  • "Can you imagine this happening to any one of us?"
  • "I don't know what I would do if this happened to any of you."
  • "I don't even know how I would pay for a funeral and burial."
  • “I don’t know how each of you feels about burial or cremation. Let’s talk about it. What would you prefer?”

3. Bring up current trends

One of the current trends making waves around the nation is attending death cafes to openly discuss death and dying and having the opportunity to ask death industry professionals questions related to death, funerals, end-of-life planning, and other death-related topics. 

4. Bring up your end-of-life planning

If you’ve recently completed and signed your end-of-life documents with your attorney or financial advisor, consider making a stop at your parent’s house to show off your progress.

Explain to them what every document is for, what it’s supposed to accomplish, and the importance of having it. Then ask them if they’ve had the opportunity to take care of theirs. If not, offer to introduce them to your advisers. If they have, ask them if they mind you taking a look or where they might keep them should you need to access those documents in an emergency.

5. Talk about illness

If you or someone you know is sick and dying, don’t waste any more time beating around the bush about what’s already known and expected to happen.

Some people fear death and try and avoid the inevitable by not talking about it as if this will accelerate their death. This fear of death is known as thanatophobia and is a real disorder that may require special attention from a mental health therapist. 

6. Ask questions

If you're curious to know more about other’s thoughts and beliefs about death and dying, start asking questions. You may want to start by asking your significant other about any deaths they’ve experienced in their lifetime and how they were affected by them.

Maybe you’re interested in how your parents feel and what they would want to happen at the end of their lives. You can couch your questions as simply being curious and wanting to know, or you can tell them that you're considering your mortality and are struggling with it. This should get the conversation flowing.  

7. Discuss your legacy

You can start a legacy project that makes its rounds within your immediate family. You can involve your children in this by turning it into a game of sorts. You may want to ask all of your close family members to write down some things about you that have made an impression on them.

Let them know that you’re working on creating and perhaps improving your legacy so that when you die people will best remember the good qualities about you. Then ask them how they would want others to remember them. 

Death Talk Made Simple

Not everyone will feel comfortable talking about death, and that’s okay too. Sometimes all it takes is breaking down the concept into small and easy to digest bits and pieces.

Even if you never get anywhere with the conversation, the important thing is that you started a necessary conversation that you can visit again later.

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