Talking to a Loved One About Death

What to say and how to say it
All Rights Reserved

Broaching the subject of death with a loved one

As frightening and painful as it can be, if your loved one is aging, you should consider talking to him about death before it's too late. If he has been given a terminal diagnosis, is extremely frail, or is showing signs of dementia, the issue is even more urgent. By avoiding the topic, you could be depriving him -- and yourself -- of the opportunity to share this final life transition. You'll probably find, too, that talking openly about his death is a relief to both of you. Not only is he likely to have some practical details he wishes to take care of, but an honest discussion of your mutual grief, love, and appreciation will enrich your last months together -- and your memories for years to come.

Starting the conversation

There's no single "right" way to talk to someone about his approaching death. What you say will be shaped by individual circumstances, including your family culture, the nature of your relationship, and his overall health and level of impairment.

Introduce the subject in a quiet moment

Find a time when he's alert and you have privacy and time to talk. You can say something like, "I'm sorry that you don't seem to be getting better" or, "I'm sad about what's happening to you."

Be a good listener

His response will help you gauge what you should say next. Let him take the lead and respond to him accordingly. If you raise the issue of your father's deteriorating health and he changes the subject, you can try to gently raise it again, without pressuring him. If he begins talking about the weather or the lunch menu, take that as an obvious signal that he isn't ready to talk. This doesn't mean you should give up. Try again when the timing seems better.

Give a careful response

If your loved one begins talking about his own death, try to just listen and be open to a range of feelings. In the face of his grief, fear, or helplessness, it can be tempting to jump in with reassuring words like, "Now, Dad, I'm sure it's not that bad!" or "Maybe the diagnosis is wrong, and we don't really have anything to worry about."

Such reactions reflect your own natural desire to protect him, and yourself, from painful feelings. But downplaying the situation won't help him come to terms with his own passing or make him feel comfortable sharing it with you. Instead, try to let him express all his feelings, even if they're hard to listen to. Talk about your own grief, feelings, and memories, and let him know that he's loved and that you'll do your best to support him throughout the process.

Learn the stages of grief

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote extensively on death and dying, described the five stages of grief : denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In fact, these stages are common among people confronting all sorts of life challenges, from a romantic breakup to a wrenching job loss.

The stages may not progress in order

Those who work with the dying say that most people experience these stages, but they don't make a smooth transition from one stage to another. Instead, most move, in no particular order, from one stage to another and back again over the course of their illness -- and even over the course of a single hour or day. When talking to a loved one about his death, it's a good idea to take these stages into account -- not as a rigid formula, but as a guide to understanding his behavior.

Let him come to accept death in his own way

Your loved one may seem to accept his terminal diagnosis and be planning accordingly. Then one day when you visit him, you find that he's booking hotel rooms for a trip to Italy next summer, even though he has only two months to live. In such cases, it's not advisable to challenge his denial: "Oh, Dad, don't be ridiculous. You heard what Dr. Thompson said!" But neither should you go along with it: "Gee, Dad, that sounds great! Which cities do you plan to visit?" Instead, acknowledge the feelings behind his words. "I know you've always wanted to visit Italy" or "Wouldn't a trip like that be fabulous!" Your loved one is simply coming to terms with his death in his own way, and, unless he's genuinely delusional, will likely quietly give up his travel plans as the reality of his circumstances sinks in.

Try not to take anger personally, and reassure him that he's not alone

You might find that your loved one expresses anger -- at his doctor for not curing his illness, at the nurses in the nursing home for not taking good care of him, at you for simply being in the vicinity. Again, it's most helpful not to argue with your parent -- or to humor him, either. Simply acknowledge his feelings: "I'm sorry you feel that way."

Some people die without ever moving out of the denial stage, refusing to acknowledge death until it's upon them. Others live out their last days in anger, bitterly railing against the miserable fate they've been dealt. Still others sink into a deep depression that makes it difficult to be around them. If your loved one fits any of these descriptions, it's still worth trying to talk to him about his approaching death, even if he's unreceptive, if only to let him know how you feel about him before he's gone.

Dying can be a lonely process. Visits and calls from friends and relatives often begin to taper off as death approaches, more often out of sadness or concern about intruding than indifference, but for the dying person, the result can be the same. Reassure him that you'll be a solid source of support throughout the process, and stick to this commitment. This doesn't mean that you must quit your job or forsake your family. You have a life, and you need to take care of yourself; your siblings or family friends may be able to help, too. At the same time, try to be a consistent, reliable presence in your loved one's life. Be sure to show up when you say you will, and stick around for the tedious moments, as well as the transformative.

Help your loved one deal with practical and spiritual matters related to his death

Besides helping your loved one come to terms with his death, you may need to discuss practical matters with him. For example:

An advance directive

If your loved one doesn't have an advance directive (also known as a living will,) you should help him prepare one immediately. An advance directive is a legal document that outlines an individual's wishes for how he wants to be treated during the dying process and after death.

If your loved one already has an advance directive, you may wish to review it together to make sure everything is up to date.

The location and currency of your loved one's will and other documents

If your loved one's illness came on suddenly, it's possible that his will is out-of-date or that other matters concerning his estate need updating. Work together to revise the will according to his wishes.

Other important personal  and spiritual issues

As people approach death, they often feel a strong need for resolution. Let your loved one know that you're available to help him take care of any personal matters that are causing him worry or concern. If he's been helping to care for a beloved grandchild who's having problems, for example, talk the matter through with him and reassure him as best you can that you and other family members will take care of the child. If he wishes to speak or write to an estranged friend or relative before it's too late, encourage him to do so, and help in any way you can.

Likewise, many dying people want to reconnect with a spiritual practice that they've allowed to lapse over the years. Even if your loved one is too weak to attend services at a place of worship, you can ask a representative to visit him and to provide readings and other material that will give him comfort. Your support in matters large and small will help him have a more peaceful passing.


David Kessler, The Needs of the Dying: A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort and Love to Life's Final Chapter (HarperCollins 2007).

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (Scribner 1997).

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (Scribner 2005).

Stephen Levine, Who Dies? (Anchor Books 1989),
and other books.

Connie Matthiessen

Constance (Connie) Matthiessen, senior editor, has worked as a healthcare and environmental journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and has written for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter. See full bio

3 months, said...

I hope this helps someone with dying that didn't have hospice available at the nursing home. I saw with Mom daily and hourly, then the next morning upon my visit, she was subconscious. just like that. After sitting with her for a while I noticed when I talked, one of her eyebrows would lift. It was amazing that she would use all her strength to communicate with me. My other siblings didn't notice it until I told them. So be very observant. I also left an hour before she died, because no one really explained to me the process. I was afraid she was staying alive just for me. I wish I would have stayed there until the very end. I will always now have to keep that in my memory. STAY THE WHOLE TIME. Once their gone, its over! Oh I miss her so much!

over 1 year, said...

My dad (well he's my step dad, but he's raised me since I was 9 month's old or when I was 19 month's old) so technically he is my actual dad, he's raised me my whole life!. Well he's 44 year's old (he'll be 45 in November), he has liver cirrhosis, he was too late to have any of the doctor's to try and save his liver, the doctor's said if he/they wasn't too late than he would of been on top of the list (waiting list) to get a new liver, but he/they were way too late for that!. He's (my dad) has been in and out of the hospital's, he was even in a nursing home, but he ended up leaving nursing home BC he wanted to be at his own house with his wife!. He's even had to go to the hospital BC he would sleep for two or three day's and nobody would be able to wake him up, when they took him to the hospital, the doctor's said that they were glad they took him there just in time BC if didn't he would of died and they also said that the whole time he was sleeping he fell into a coma, they tried to keep him there in the hospital but he refuses to stay in the hospital BC he doesn't want to die in one, he wants to die in his own house and in his own bed!. Now he's starting to have real bad chest pain's and he's non stop getting sick (throwing up), everything he eats and drink's he throw's up, even if he doesn't eat anything he'll still throw up!. And it really scares me to death BC I don't want to lose my daddy, me and my dad has always been really close together!. And I have a 5 year old son (my son was born October 2nd, 2011) that doesn't really know his grandpa that well, BC his (my son) grandpa was in prison when I had my son and my dad just got out in 2013, but my lil boy just absolutely love's his pa-pa (grandpa) too death!. I don't live in the same city or town as my dad, he lives in Kansas and me and my son lives in Oklahoma!. I got married when my dad was in prison and me and my husband are going to have another wedding, as soon as we can afford another one, so my dad would be able to walk me down the aisle, BC he didn't get to the first time since he was in prison!. But I'm really afraid he won't make it to my wedding, to walk me down, to see his grandson grow up, to see his grandson graduate, to see his grandson get married and even see his grandson have kid's!. I'm the only one out of all the kid's (my sister's and brother's) that has a kid!. My dad is my hero, I'm absolutely really close to my dad and I'm a big daddy's girl ever (even though I'm 24 year's old, almost 25)!. I don't know what to do, when/if I ever lose him!. My whole family, including myself think I'm going to be the ONE that take's my dad's death really hard and the ONE that will need some consoling and the ONE that will break down the hardest!. Which I know I will be the ONE to take it the hardest, would need consoling and the ONE that will break down the hardest!.

over 3 years, said...

My 95 year old father has loss of appetite, can no longer walk and is having a pretty miserable existence in a care home. My mother visits him daily and nags him to try to walk. She tells him if he doesn't walk he'll never come home. My sister has joined in with this nagging and it's so cruel. I Find it difficult to be in the same room as them but at the same time I feel the need to defend my dad. They say I've given up on him, but really I want him to be comfortable and less stressed. I can't speak to anyone about this and feel like I'm the bad guy he're. I've spoken to the staff at the home who think my dad is being put under pressure, they don't say this to my mum or sister as they're probably worried about them moving my father to a different home. I can't sleep, this situation is so horrible

over 5 years, said...

I lost my husband in april 2012,He died of Lou Geriges dasaise (A.L.S.) he went quickly, and when I would bring up questions about what he wanted he wouldn't tell us ,untill the night before he died then he discused every aspect of his death.I was comforting to ones left behind.He also showed us death is not to be feared but accepted and even welcomed.

over 5 years, said...

In the area I live and have my 90 year old mother in a nursing home facility, that my Mom has been happy so far. A few months ago she had another bad stroke and is having a difficult time eating and speaking. My Mom's Doctor said it would be a good idea to get hospice involved. So I did this and now my mother and I are both extremely unhappy with the hospice care company and its employees - the RN etc. Basically pushing beliefs on my Mom that are unacceptable. My Mom is very aware her time is short but she does not believe on dwelling on her demise. We want cheer and things she will enjoy not being told how to pray for an end to her life. I need some advice or at least some diplomatic way to approach the nursing home and the hospice care company

over 5 years, said...

The comments about denial hit home, my mom blames the doctors for everything (they are incompetent or just too busy to take care of her) but forgets that she did not inform her surgeon of a pre-existing condition which has caused major problems after her hip surgery. To this day almost 6 months later, when I remind her the response is "really honey, I never that before.". Or there is my father-in-law (90+) who when you talk to him about an advanced directive before a surgery who responds to his daughter and son "there's GREED in this room." Forget about the will, he will actually schedule meetings to discuss the will with his attorney with the kids there, but then tell the attorney to not discuss anything in it with his kids. After one meeting with the lawyer where everyone agreed it would be good for the children (they are all 50+) to talk directly with the attorney, he got home, called the attorney and told him to never talk to his kids. As far as spiritual issues go, his only interest in religion is to mock anyone who is involved. He is MUCH to superior to anyone who would believe in a god.

almost 6 years, said...

I'm not worried about dying myself. I figure that if what I believe to be true, that there is a heaven, then I'll be in a much better place. If there is nothing after death, then it won't matter what I believe because there is only nothingness, therefore no regret. What I worry about is talking to my family about it because they tend to be overly emotional about these sorts of things. I'm an emotional person myself, but not about dying since I see it as a natural and necessary part of living. They tend to freak out, even if I allude to my own death in passing.

about 6 years, said...

If there is a website where I might be more likely to get input, I would greatly appreciate it, if someone would steer me in that direction!

about 6 years, said...

So how do I explain to my children, in a way they might accept, that every day that I live puts me one day closer to death? They don't seem to accept the fact that all of us are dying from the moment of concep-tion. I don't have a terminal illness unless getting older is on the list, and I suppose it should be! Advice on this is more than welcome!!

about 6 years, said...

thank you for this info. it helped me know how to react to a love e one who seems to be losing her will to live. thanks again.

about 6 years, said...

Question for zedsmom84: your message makes me wonder if you had a near-death experience at some point when you were ill. I hear about this from patients a lot - they feel the are experiencing the world from a location outside their physical body and have a renewed sense of purpose afterwards. You have been through a lot and are an inspiration for all of us.

about 6 years, said...

I went through this when my father died. My 17 year old son died suddenly, so I did not have a time to say good-bye. However, I became ill with end-stage congestive heart failure and went through it myself. The doctors cannot explain why I am still alive. I think I have a service to render to those who are dying that can't quite be understood by anyone who has not yet been there as I was. You have handled this wonderfully well.

about 6 years, said...

Hello Anonymous, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. has an End of Life resource center that may be of interest to you or to anyone you know who is dying or has recently passed. You can access information about preparing for death, final arrangements, grief and other end of life components here: Please don't hesitate to contact our team if we may help you find additional resources.

about 6 years, said...

I'M the one who's dying. What about me?