When to talk with dying people about dying, and how to start the conversation.

Some dying people do not want to talk about their dying.  Sometimes it is the family that does not want to talk about dying. Elizabeth Causton, Social Worker and retired counsellor with Victoria Hospice has suggestions for how you can help family members to clarify their needs and to help them to ensure that they will not regret their desire to avoid discussing death.

First, Elizabeth suggests opening the door, possibly by saying something like:

I know you’ve said that you don’t want to talk about death and dying at this point in your wife’s illness, but I need to know if there any circumstances under which you would want to have that discussion?


Would you be doing anything differently right now if you knew that your wife’s condition was changing faster than you thought it was?

The answer to the first question might be,

Well yes, if my wife was imminently dying then I would have to have that conversation with somebody.

To which you might reply,

So if it appeared that you wife was dying, you would want us to talk to you about that.

This opens the door to a difficult conversation in a respectful way.

The answer to the second question might be,

Well yes, I would be calling my sons and telling them to come home.

Again, this is an opening that allows the husband in this case to make a very important decision, rather than lamenting after his wife’s death, “If I had only known….

Elizabeth will be exploring other ways to make difficult conversations easier in the online course “Compassionate Communications in Palliative Care” starting in a few weeks. If this interests you, then read more about hospice palliative care education options with Life and Death Matters.

Why should it be less about ‘me’ and more about ‘you’?

In the online course, “Compassionate Communication” Elizabeth Causton suggests that “The essence of compassionate communication is to be able to step away from our own beliefs, biases, personal experiences, needs, and expectations and to move forward to fully understand the experiences of another person. This does not mean that we deny our own story, but rather that we are consciously aware of our hidden beliefs so that we can own them and set them aside as we do our work. Therefore “compassionate communication” is less about technique and more about perspective and clarity; it’s less about what we tell people and more about what we ask them; it’s less about judgment and more about acceptance; ultimately, it’s less about ‘me’ and more about ‘you.’”

It is interesting but not surprising how many people, myself included, search for the “right thing to say”!  There is NO book with all the perfect answers to any particular challenge or need. Journaling, reflecting on our own experiences, and reflecting on work experiences can help to clarify our own beliefs, biases, personal needs and expectations.  When we do this, we reduce the risk of tripping over ourselves, and instead, turn to the person in need, and identify what would be helpful according to him/her.

Elizabeth talks about difficult conversations, and how getting ourselves out of the way we can find out listen to understand what might be most supportive for this person at this time.

For more ideas on opening the door for difficult conversations, visit the upcoming course “Compassionate Communication”.