As a society, we’ve come a long way in our attitudes toward death and dying. More and more people are drafting living wills and advance directives to ensure the kind of end-of-life care they will receive, and many are even making their own funeral arrangements. One aspect of death that’s still hard for many people to handle, though, is talking with loved ones about death.
Even though you may be comfortable talking about your own eventual death, especially if you are still healthy and plan to be around for a while, the same may not be true if you are talking about the impending death of a loved one who is sick. People who are dying often feel isolated and alone, yet we have a hard time making that emotional connection when they need us most.
Why It’s So Hard to Talk About Dying
So what can you do? The first step is to face the reasons for your reluctance to talk openly with your loved one about the end of life. Perhaps you find the subject threatening because it forces you to face the ultimate reality of your own death, or maybe you’re afraid that you don’t have the strength to deal with the intense emotions that are sure to arise. Maybe you feel guilty about things you’ve done or haven’t done, or maybe your relationship with your dying loved one has been strained for a long time, and you just don’t know how to get over that hurdle.
Question your assumptions about your loved one. Are you assuming that he is too sick to talk about something so sad and painful? Better rethink that. Your reluctance to talk about the important issues with your loved one will show in your body language, lack of eye contact, physical distance and avoidance, and these are much more likely to cause your loved one pain than an open, heartfelt discussion.
Put yourself in your loved one’s place and try to imagine how you would feel. Would you want your friends and family to distance themselves from you as you face the end alone? Of course not. The fact that talking about death is difficult doesn’t give you a pass; to the contrary, it demands that you work through your fears so you can be fully present to your loved one.
A Gift of Love
The question, then, is how you can overcome your fears and start the conversation with your loved one. To begin, let her know how hard it is for you to face the fact she won’t be with you much longer, and that you can’t imagine life without her. If you’re afraid, tell her, and tell her that you fear hurting her. Saying the words is the hardest part – your loved one already knows, at some level, that this is how you feel, and your words will reassure her that your love for her is greater than your fear. She’ll take great comfort in knowing you will be there for her emotionally.
Next, ask your loved one what he needs or wants from you. Sometimes people who are dying want to talk openly and a lot about their illness and impending death. Others prefer to talk less about death, focusing instead on the memories of a lifetime. The important thing is to take your cues from your loved one – it’s all about him now.
Honesty is crucial. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If your loved one expresses a desire to see you every day but the other demands of your life just won’t allow it, tell him so, and then tell him that you will visit twice a week, or whatever you can manage. And if your loved one broaches a subject that makes you uncomfortable, such as graphic details about his medical treatment or family secrets you’d rather not know, don’t hesitate to tell him, gently, that you’d rather not talk about those things. Once you know each others expectations, talking should come more naturally.
Brighten Your Loved One’s Day
Keep in mind that the conversation doesn’t have to be all somber. Laughter is still the best medicine. Although you may be reluctant to inject humor into your conversations with your loved one at such a time, keep in mind that it’s important for her to continue living until she dies. Laughter not only makes life easier, but a touch of humor can also make even the most painful subjects a bit easier to talk about.
Share Your Thoughts
Have you talked about death with a loved one who is facing the end of life? How did you overcome your fears to get the conversation going? What tips can you offer to others who are facing the same situation?