Talking about death, whether that of a loved one or even our own, can be both terrifying and unpleasant. Many people are evasive about it, both through the behaviour they adopt and the language they use.
Anyone who has ever had a conversation with a representative of most, though not all, funeral homes are typically struck by what can only be called a retreat to euphemism – but that shouldn’t be the case.
Speaking the Language of Death
Lori Viens, who works as a family service counsellor for Dignity Memorial – the largest network of funeral homes in North America – is an exception to this uncomfortable truth.
Mortality is a fact that family service counsellor Lori Viens does not try to sugar-coat. “It is an uncomfortable conversation. Especially discussing our own death. But, if the worst happens, it’s even more uncomfortable for your children, family and friends to have to have that conversation.”
Discovering Lori led us to explore some hands-on, tangible examples of what we have to do to ameliorate the burden of talking about mortality and reduce it to practical terms.
That search introduced us to Hospice U.K. whose extensive experience on the subject has enabled them to provide an illuminating checklist of how to approach what for most of us might be the most difficult and heartrending conversation we will ever have.
What follows is a condensed summary of their excellent, no-nonsense advice.
Initiating a Sensitive Conversation
On their website Hospice U.K. state: “There are a number of reasons why we find talking about death and dying difficult. It could be fear of saying the wrong thing, or of hurting someone’s feelings.”
- Talk face-to-face. Alternatively, have the conversation by phone. Avoid written messages.
- Choose a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be interrupted.
- Avoid using euphemisms such as “gone to sleep.”
- Using clear, honest language is important, especially if you’re talking to someone with dementia, someone with a learning disability, or a child.
Tips on Talking About Death & Dying
Observes Hospice U.K.: “People can have very different reactions to death depending on their attitudes, beliefs and the relationship they have with the person who is dying. It’s important to take their individual feelings into consideration and avoid pushing anyone into talking if they don’t want to.”
- Be honest. Often in difficult situations we tend to search for the ‘right’ or clever thing to say, or we deny what’s happening altogether. Frank, open conversations can be very liberating and soothing, both for the dying person and their loved ones.
- Listen. Pay attention to body language. Look your relative or friend in the eye when you are talking to them. If they avoid eye contact, consider the possibility that they might not be ready to have this conversation.
- Stay calm. You might find this kind of emotional intimacy difficult, or you might be worried about seeing your relative or friend cry or appear helpless and vulnerable. Breathe slowly to calm yourself. Keep yourself grounded by physically feeling your feet on the floor. This will help you to be present and accepting of what is happening.
- Don’t be afraid to cry. Crying is a natural response to emotionally charged situations. Being brave enough to express your grief can have a powerful healing effect on the person you’re talking to, as well as giving them permission to grieve themselves.
- Don’t feel you have to talk all the time. Simply being beside someone in silence can be hugely comforting.
- Let the person know they can talk to you if they need to. You might say, “If there ever comes a time when you want to talk about something, please do tell me”. This gives them permission to talk in their own time, without expectation.
Because Ms Viens’ office is to be found at one of the busier company locations, she can see firsthand the contrast between those who pre-plan and those who do not. It can either be a 15-minute meeting with one, designated person, or become one which includes kids, spouses, and anyone who needs questions answered, lasting upwards of 4 hours.
Although she loves what she does and feels privileged to help families through this time, she thinks that people should not have to spend so much time in an office on what is typically a terrible day.
“On a day when you are grieving, you should be with family.”