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Six tips for talking about death

Death is not the taboo topic that it used to be.

End of life charity Marie Curie ran a survey last year to find out about UK attitudes to death and dying and the results showed 84% of respondents were comfortable talking about death with family and friends.

There is, however, a gap between the number of people who say they are OK talking about death and dying and those that have actually done so. While most people think it’s important to express their end-of-life wishes around care, just 14% of respondents have done this.

It might seem strange that people find it so difficult to talk about death given it’s something that every single one of us has in common. But hesitancy to speak openly remains, evidenced in the Marie Curie survey by people not planning ahead for their own end of life.

  • Just 20% of survey respondents had made financial arrangements for their funeral
  • Only 40% had talked to someone about whether they want to be buried or cremated

The problem may be that people simply don’t know how to initiate the conversation. Adopting one or more of the tips below may help to introduce the subject of death and dying into everyday conversations.

Choose the right moment

Dropping the ‘D’ word into the middle of a conversation about where to have a family birthday party probably won’t get the best reaction. Wait until you are already speaking more abstractly about death, maybe in relation to the death of a celebrity, and use that as your opening.

Choose the right place

A busy pub or restaurant is not the best place to try to explain your end-of-life wishes. Hospice UK recommends speaking face to face in a quiet, comfortable place where you are not likely to be interrupted.

Janet Ellis, whose husband John died from cancer, has said: “We walked with the dog every day, so a lot of our conversations happened side by side. I think that’s a great way to have a conversation with someone because you can be nicely distracted by nature and your surroundings too.”

Choose the right words

Use language about death and dying that your loved ones are comfortable using. Being open and honest is important and straight talking can help. But it might help the conversation if you can soften your language, using metaphors or euphemismsin place of the words death and dying.

Begin with ‘Housekeeping’

Talking about having your will made or where you have stored important documents is a good way to introduce the subject of your death without talking directly about dying. Adopting a ‘housekeeping’ tone may make it easier to discuss more personal issues around your funeral plans or your end of life care preferences.

Be prepared

It’s important to know what you want to say when you start a conversation about your end-of-life plans. Think about what you want for your funeral – do you want to be buried or cremated? What sort of service, if any, do you want? Your loved ones may have questions and thinking about what those might be and how you will answer will help you get the most out of the conversation.

Pay attention

You may have been thinking about this conversation for a while, but your loved ones probably haven’t. Hospice UK suggests that when you talk to someone about death and dying, listen to their tone of voice and changes to the way they speak or to their body language. If they avoid eye contact, for example, they might not be ready to have this conversation.