Talking about death
At some point in all of our lives, probably on many occasions, we are likely to have to have a conversation about death. Whether it’s breaking the news that a friend or relative has died or answering the probing questions of children. There are many situations in which, however much we might like to avoid it, the subject of death presents itself.
Why talk about death?
The question is, why do we find talking about it so difficult?
Magical thinking is the belief that one's own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world. It’s common in children but persists for many into adulthood, either consciously or subconsciously (how many of us quickly ‘touch wood’ when talking about a possible negative outcome?) Although rationally we know that not talking about death doesn’t make it any less likely to happen – we’d prefer not to risk it.
Fear of upsetting others: according to the Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology (1961), the most common reason humans fear their own death is the grief it will bring to their loved ones. Small wonder, then, that we avoid talking about it. When it comes to the deaths of others, few of us relish breaking bad news; we may even fear a ‘shoot the messenger’ response and prefer to get someone else to break the news, or skirt around the subject with euphemisms.
Feeling it’s crass or unseemly: it’s often said that the Victorians were good at talking about death but terrible at talking about sex and that in our modern 21st century world we have experienced a complete reversal. There’s cultural and historical context for this, in the western world at least; the enormous scale of untimely deaths in the first half of the 20th century as a result of two devastating world wars and the Spanish flu epidemic, led to a sort of collective ‘buttoning-up’ of emotion where death and grief were concerned, simply in order to continue to function as a society. The ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality was born of loss and privation but still persists, to some extent, today.
All of the above are valid and understandable fears. However, the fact is that death will happen to all of us, and not talking about it definitely won’t prevent it. Having open and honest conversations about death may, however, make a difficult situation a little easier on our loved ones when the time comes; and may even lead to more meaningful relationships while we are alive.
How to talk about death
- Breaking bad news
- Talking to children about death
- Talking to people with cognitive impairment about death
- Supporting someone in the aftermath of bad news
Before breaking the news that someone has died, you may wish to prepare yourself. It can be helpful to think about and rehearse what you are going to say, and what you are going to do afterwards, e.g. consider whether the person is likely to need immediate additional support and whether you will be able to give this or find someone else who can be there with them.
Ideally, the news of a death should be delivered face-to-face, especially if the person you are breaking the news to had a close relationship with the person who has died. Of course, this isn’t always possible, so if you will be speaking over the phone, try to consider things like the time of day you are calling and the likely impact on the person on the other end and who might be around to support them.
Avoid distractions and if possible, try to make sure there are no interruptions. Switch off mobile phones, turn off radios and televisions and give the person your full attention.
Be clear about what has happened and avoid euphemisms (e.g. the person has ‘gone to a better place’), platitudes (e.g. ‘at least they’re not suffering now’) or excessive details; people who are hearing bad news rarely take in all of the details at once. Be prepared to repeat yourself as the person receiving the news may well be in shock and not able to hear what you are telling them. Check that they have understood what you have said.
Even when a death is “expected”, the final news is generally still received as a shock. As such, be prepared for reactions you may not have expected e.g. disbelief, anger, silence, even laughter or other responses which may seem unusual. We all respond in different and sometimes unexpected ways when we are given difficult news. Try to be non-judgemental and patient.
Some people may feel they need immediate support, perhaps physical comfort e.g. a hug, in the aftermath of such news. Others will prefer to be left alone. If possible, be in a position to offer either of these, depending on what is required by the individual.
If you’re not able to stay, or if you’re delivering the news by phone, check if there is someone close by who can stay with the person and support them if that’s what they need.
Make sure that you have your own support in place. Delivering bad news is never easy and taking the time to talk through your own feelings with someone in confidence might be helpful. Even when you are the person breaking the news, it’s quite possible that you will also be affected by it, especially if you knew the person who has died.
Be honest and clear about what has happened. It is especially important with children that you keep language simple and avoid euphemisms such as ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed on’; the child may not understand, or worse, may become fearful themselves about sleeping, or what happens when someone dies. Make sure that your words are appropriate to the age and understanding of the child or young person that you are speaking to.
It’s important to reassure children and young people them that it’s natural and okay to feel sad, and also to not feel sad all the time. Try to avoid ‘prodding’ them for what you see as an appropriate reaction; some children can take a little longer to process the news and may in the first instance even appear rather heartless as they return to whatever was preoccupying them before they were told about the death.
Encourage the child or young person to ask any questions and reassure them that if they think of anything later, they can always ask.
Be on the lookout for behaviour shifts that may come about as a result of processing the grief; let the school and any other caregivers know about the bereavement so they can be aware of anything unusual in your child’s behaviour. Often, children ‘act out’ their grief and can be angry, destructive or especially silly or noisy when they are bereaved – this is often how children express their emotions when they do not yet have the words to describe how they are feeling.
A child or young person may become especially clingy or even distant in the aftermath of a bereavement; many young people keep themselves busy with distractions such as school, friends or activities after a bereavement. Again, this is perfectly normal and they should simply be made aware that you are there for them if they need you and that you are willing to talk and support them when they are ready. It could be helpful to have another trusted adult on hand they can turn to such as a friend, family member or school counsellor, as it may be that the child or young person is worried about upsetting you by talking about the person who has died.
Remember young children are especially prone to ‘magical thinking’; they may need reassurance that nothing they did or said could have caused or indeed prevented the death and that they are in no way to blame for what has happened.
For more information, read our guide on explaining death to children.
Sometimes, as with children and young people, we are reluctant to talk openly to very elderly, ill or cognitively impaired people when a bereavement occurs. We may feel we want to protect them or that they won’t fully understand what has happened. In most cases, however, honesty and openness is best, and any attempts to minimise or even keep secret the loss may lead to greater problems if the face of someone’s death is not shared and the grief is not permitted to be experienced.
As when breaking bad news to anyone about a death, when talking to someone with a cognitive impairment, simple language should be used and it is usually sensible to stick to the fact of the death as far as possible without going into detail. Be prepared to explain simply what you mean, be patient and also try to be mindful of the impact that this news will have on the person.
The way you approach the subject will depend very much on the individual and, in the case of a person living with dementia, for example, the extent of their impairment. A person in the later stages of dementia may not be able to retain the facts of the situation but may be left with upsetting feelings to which they are unable to attribute a cause. This can result in behavioural changes and can be very distressing both to experience and to witness. This is why there is often some debate about the ethics of having these conversations and whether people really need to be told about a death.
In the example described above, you should be prepared to be asked about the deceased person again (perhaps repeatedly) and you may decide it is kinder to avoid saying that they have died, and instead encourage the individual to talk about the person, asking general questions about them such as ‘How old would they be now, do you think?’ and ‘What did you like best about them?’
Try to reach a family or caregiver consensus about the best way to deliver bad news to someone with a cognitive impairment. It is important to try to avoid giving mixed or confusing messages, or of someone with a cognitive impairment or special frailty being ‘accidentally’ told about the death by someone who is not usually involved with them. If in doubt, seek advice from a professional caregiver.
Remember to look after yourself. You may find having to tell someone that their loved one has died has a profound effect on you; you may wonder if you could have approached it differently or go over and over what happened if you feel that it went wrong. Seek help if you find yourself dwelling on the experience or worrying about it excessively and try to be kind to yourself – you did your best in difficult circumstances.
It may be that it is in the weeks and months after the death that your support will be most appreciated. People often say when someone is bereaved, ‘if you need anything, just let me know’. While this is usually well-meaning, it does place the responsibility for asking for help onto the bereaved person. If you want to help, be specific in your offer. Actions very often speak louder than words and for a long time after the death and indeed the funeral, bereaved people may need and appreciate both practical help and emotional support.
How exactly you can help will depend on the individual. Grief can be exhausting and the bereaved person may appreciate some relief from daily tasks e.g. cooking, childcare, shopping or dog walking. You may like to offer to help them with paperwork or practical adjustments, as there can be a lot to sort through after a death and this can feel overwhelming. Practical assistance like this can be a good way of demonstrating that you are there for them and also provides opportunities to talk and provide emotional support while you are together and perhaps engaged in a task.
Written by Catherine Betley, Managing Director of Professional Help Limited & GriefChat®
Catherine has over 20 years experience of managing counselling and therapy organisations. She is currently Managing Director of Professional Help Limited, which delivers confidential and impartial support and counselling including employee support, critical incident response and bereavement counselling.
In 2017, Catherine set up GriefChat® which enables bereaved people to chat instantly online to a qualified bereavement counsellor. GriefChat won the ‘Best Bereavement Support Website’ category at the 2018 Good Funeral Awards.