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Talking to a Loved One About Death

What to say and how to say it

By , Caring.com senior editor
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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.