Talking About Death

A loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal disease.  Should the topic of death be avoided so as not to upset them, or is it best to talk about it openly?

We all know that death is inevitable, and this fact can make some uncomfortable.  But when someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, their impending death is more than uncomfortable—it can be an overwhelming and frightening time.

Avoiding the conversation does not make it any less so.  It is important to talk about death.  This will help ensure that you know your loved one’s wishes, and you are comfortable in carrying them out.  It is equally as important to approach this conversation with sensitivity and respect for the individual.  You do not want to force someone to have a conversation they are uncomfortable with.  However, you do not want to wait so long that you miss the opportunity to discuss it while the person is still able to make sound decisions.

If you have the sad task of preparing for the death talk with a loved one, you may want to contact your area hospice provider for suggestions on how to approach the conversation delicately.  In addition, the National Caregiver’s Library ( provides the following recommendations:

  • Do not push your loved one to talk about death. He or she will do so when ready.
  • Do not let your feelings be hurt if your loved one chooses to discuss death with someone other than yourself. If this is the case, and you would like to discuss death with your loved one, let him/ her know that you are comfortable discussing the topic when he/ she is ready to talk to you.
  • Always use language about death that everyone is comfortable using. Try not to avoid using the word, but feel free to use metaphors or softer words (e.g., pass away) in place of the word “death.”
  • Do not rush the conversation. Make time for your loved one and realize that you might have to do so on a flexible schedule—predicting when someone will feel comfortable discussing death is often difficult.
  • Do not discredit any emotions about death that you or your loved one is feeling. Be sure to acknowledge that these may be influencing what you say or how you behave. This will help your loved one to understand.
  • If a loved one brings the topic up and it scares you, do not shut the individual down by saying something like “don’t say that.” Instead, even if you aren’t ready to talk about it, let your loved one discuss his/her feelings. Keep the conversation going by saying things like “really?” or by rephrasing what he or she has already said.
  • If you are ready to discuss death, talk naturally about what things will be like when the individual is no longer present. Ask if there are any special wishes that your loved one has with respect to future events that they will miss (e.g., Dad is there someone who you would like to designate as the “turkey cutter” next Thanksgiving?)
  • Finally, talk about your loved one’s current condition and his/her hopes or fears for the future. If there is a way to gain information that would lessen your loved one’s fears, you should do so (e.g., asking your loved one’s doctor about what options are available if the pain gets worse).

Death is a mystery to all of us.  Consequently, it will always hold a certain element of fear or anxiety, but a willingness to discuss death openly, especially when someone is facing imminent death, can help ease the negative feelings and provide peace of mind and spirit.

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