How to talk about dying

Having difficult conversations and facing powerful emotions is a key part of the coaching process.  In the last few weeks we have faced the deaths of two important people and a beloved pet.    Talking to children about death has really shone a light on the layers of avoidance which we pile on in the face of challenging conversations.  The English language is a treasure trove of euphemisms to help us avoid saying the D-word – passed away, lost, no longer with us.  But what do these expressions actually mean? What is often most helpful for children is absolute honesty about the facts, and with that a safe place to express the emotions which come with facing those facts.

In the last year several wonderful books have been published about death and grief. ‘With Death in Mind’, by palliative care consultant Dr Kathryn Mannix, is a fascinating account of the author’s experiences caring for people in hospices.  What really struck me was the language she uses in conversations with the dying.  The book is full of examples of naming what’s going on, acknowledging the emotions that are coming up, and creating space for patients and their families to simply be in these powerful experiences.  One story really resonated – the case of an elderly man who was dying from a heart attack on top of an existing chronic condition.  His death was imminent but when his children were asked what they felt his wishes would be, they were unable to answer.  They remembered that their father had tried to talk about his own dying and death, but they had avoided the conversation as it was too painful to contemplate.  Had they been able to have that difficult conversation, they would have been comforted by the knowledge that they were acting as their father wished in his last moments.

At the end of the book, there is a framework to use for expressing our thoughts about a loved one and communicating it to them, either in a letter or conversation.  These conversations are not easy – communicating in a clear and direct way about matters so dearly to us puts us in a vulnerable, uncomfortable position.  It’s much easier not to bother. But having these conversations creates clarity at a time when there may be much uncertainty, and clears the way for love.  So don’t be afraid of difficult conversations.  Name what’s actually happening, share how you’re feeling and say what you want.  Use your words wisely and let their power do the work.

For more reading on grief, see also Grief Works by Julia Samuel