How To Talk With Your Dying Loved One

Death invariably remains a delicate subject to broach with any family member, particularly when it is imminent. In some cultures, however, it is never raised, as it is considered a taboo. However, in my previous line of work, it gave me the license to be upfront in handling the subject openly with a wide range of clients, but its sensitivity always predicated my approach. Elizabeth Bernstein, writing for the Wall Street Journal, has some exceedingly sound advice for those who have to approach this subject with a dying loved one. Here is a summary of how one can approach the talk:

  Talk early. Don’t wait until the very end, when people are understandably very emotional. Time may be limited, and the dying person may move in and out of consciousness.

  Make a crib sheet. If you aren’t sure what you want to say or whether you’ll be able to say it, write it down and read it aloud, says Brian Carpenter, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

  Start with an explanation. And acknowledge the talk is difficult for you. Dr Carpenter suggests: “I’m not sure how much time we’ll have left, and there are some things I want to make sure I say to you while I can.”

  Keep it brief. People are likely to have less physical and emotional energy to sit through something long. Pick one to two of the most important things you want to say.

  Don’t expect people to change. Not everyone is up for the conversation you envision. If someone doesn’t want to talk, let it go.

  Don’t push religion. Not everyone has the same beliefs, and expecting others to share yours is discounting who they are.

  Manage your expectations. Often, people think a dying person will offer up the secrets to life or explain a family mystery, says Maureen P. Keeley, professor of interpersonal communication at Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas. But that may be out of character for the person—and exhausting.

  Be compassionate. “In some situations, forgiveness and staying silent may be more gracious than speaking an unkind truth,” Dr Carpenter says.

  Be present. Sometimes the best talks happen when you least expect them. So the more time you spend with the person, the more opportunities you will have.

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