I Am Living

Your conversation about dying and death will be influenced by a number of factors. The most important of these factors will be the time in your life when you have this discussion as well as your beliefs and attitudes to dying and death and those of the people who are important to you. In particular, when planning these conversation, it is important to take in account everyone’s feelings and avoiding placing demands on others which they may not wish to fulfill.

  • collate some relevant information about end-of-life care planning, as it applies to your circumstances and point in time. You may wish to start your research by referring to Key Considerations;
  • make some notes about your wishes and preferences;
  • decide who the people in your life are with whom you wish to discuss your end of life wishes and your preferences for some of them to have specific roles in your end-of-life journey (e.g. medical power of attorney);
  • decide whether you wish to have a special discussion with some people (for example, your spouse), before having a group discussion;
  • set discussion/s for a suitable time for all participants;
  • talk face to face, if possible. Alternatively speak on the phone;
  • select a quiet, comfortable place where you are not likely to be interrupted. Turn off phones so you are not disturbed;
  • avoid using expressions such as ‘gone to sleep’ as these can be confusing for people with a learning disability, people with dementia or a child;
  • be open and honest. Although death is a natural part of life, it is also a profound time which calls for honesty and understanding;
  • stay calm and ask everybody’s cooperation doing the same as this can be a highly emotional time;
  • do not be afraid to show emotion (for example: tears, vulnerability, sadness) as this can have a healing effect while giving others permission to grieve;
  • ask all present to listen to you and others without interruption, interjection or judgment, assuring everyone that once you have said your piece, everybody will have a chance to contribute to the discussion should they wish to;
  • allow people who wish to remain silent to do so;
  • let people know that you will value their comments any time into the future; and
  • if you feel that the conversation is not progressing well (for example: obvious discomfort, raised voices), consider reconvening the discussion and asking a third party to assist moderating the conversation (for example: therapist, pastoral care worker, health care professional).

Death and dying conversations with children

Children are often more open to conversations about dying and death than adults realise. Open discussions regarding dying and death often prevent children from developing fears and misunderstandings, which may grow over time. It is important that children are involved in conversations which are appropriate to their age and development so that they do not feel isolated or guilty about their feelings. Some suggestions to use while having a conversation about dying or death with a child follow:

  • it is important to make sure the child is comfortable asking questions or expressing their opinions about dying and death. Try to let them lead the conversation wherever possible,
  • listen carefully so you know exactly what the child means to say;
  • be open and honest;
  • provide information which is appropriate to the age and development phase of the child;
  • use clear and direct language, avoid phrases like ‘go to sleep’ or ‘pass away’ which can give the wrong message to a child;
  • if you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest and say so;
  • try and answer their question as soon as they are asked as a child’s attention span is limited. A series of short conversations is often more effective than a single long discussion;
  • don’t worry if you think you answered the question badly, it is more important to the child that you paid attention;
  • try to look comfortable answering their questions as this will convey the message that talking about dying and death is allowed;
  • feel free to show emotion (for example: tears, sadness) as this gives the child permission to show their own grief; and
  • ensure that your comments and answers are understood as children understand words very literally;

Conversation starters for children

You can use an event, an activity or a resource to start the conversation.

For example:

  • books for children about death and dying;
  • use examples of life and death from the natural world, such as flowers blossoming and withering away;
  • use the death of a pet, or finding a dead animal, to start a conversation about life and death. If possible, give the child the opportunity to be present when the animal is buried, and carry out a ritual like planting flowers or marking the burial site;
  • involve children in family activities including attending funerals, if they want to, explaining what they can expect to happen there. It is an opportunity for them to say goodbye to the person who has died; and
  • memory boxes can be a good way of helping children remember loved ones who have died. These are containers you can create together, and fill with photos, letters, and any objects that remind you and your children of the happy times you had with them.