Talking about dying

Key points about talking about dying

  • If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s so important to talk to whānau and friends about what you’re going through, what you need and how they can support you.
  • Talking openly and honestly can help make sure you don’t feel isolated or lonely and it can help friends and whānau with their grief.
  • Talking about death and dying can be hard, awkward and upsetting. Fear about the right thing to say or denial about what’s going to happen can cause people to avoid talking about it.
  • If someone close to you has a terminal illness, it’s important for you to be there to listen and to provide emotional and practical support.
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Talking with your child about a terminal illness and dying, whether it’s your own illness or someone close to you, will probably be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll have. It’s important for children to understand what’s happening and to be prepared for what will happen when someone close to them dies.

Use clear and accurate language. Be calm and factual

It’s easy to want to soften the words you use when talking about death. But saying things like “we lost Daddy” or “Grandad has gone to be with the angels”, can be confusing for children. They may think they can go and find Daddy, or Grandad chose to go with the angels instead of staying here with them.

Using words such as death and dying can help children to help understand the finality of death. Younger children may not fully comprehend what death means, but they may understand it means they won’t see the person again.

Bring it into the conversation gradually

If you or someone close to you is dying, your child may be aware something out of the ordinary is happening. You may find it easier if you gradually bring up the topic of death and what it means for them. Talking about things over time can help your child to slowly process what’s going on.

Try not to give your child too much information; sometimes a little bit of information here and there is helpful. Talking with your child while you’re doing something, for eg driving in the car or while you’re making dinner together, is less overwhelming than sitting down for a long conversation.

Be guided by your child’s questions

Listen to the questions and answer them. Don’t answer what they haven’t asked.

Children process information differently than adults. Some children may be worried about how the death of you or someone close to them will impact on their day to day life. They might have questions such as “who is going to take me to school when you die?” or “do I still get to go and see my friends?”. They will often then get on with other things and then raise questions another time when curious.

Answer your child’s questions honestly and let them know you’re always available to answer more questions.

Let them know it's okay to cry and okay not to cry.

Bring it up in conversation

Tell family and friends you’d like to talk. You could begin the conversation with practical things, such as where you’d like to be cared for and what your advance care plan is, slowly moving onto emotional or spiritual issues. Acknowledge that dying and death is a hard thing to talk about, but remember, most people will find talking beneficial.

Take your time

Just like talking with children, many adults will find it easier to talk about death over time. Talk openly and honestly. If someone is struggling to talk with you, come back to the conversation another time.

Other ways to communicate

If you’re finding it hard to start a conversation about your terminal illness, you could write a letter or record a video. This could open up the communication channel or give you another way of telling someone how you feel if you’re finding it too hard to talk with them face-to-face.

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

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