Talking about death and dying might be difficult or not usually done in your family or culture. However, bringing the subject into the open and talking about how a family member would like to be cared for should they become seriously ill, or what their wishes are should they die, can be a big mental relief and help everyone practically and emotionally should the worst happen.
Because COVID-19 can cause people to become sick and deteriorate very quickly, it may be that these are conversations we all need to have – before anyone we love gets sick – even if this is something we would not normally discuss. It’s also worth remembering that talking about death or dying does not make it any more likely that anyone in your family will get sick or die; it just means you are better prepared if they do.
Psalm 23 v 4 says:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley (some translations say the valley of the shadow of death), I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
In the dark valleys of life where the shadow of death appears to be close, we have the comfort of knowing that God does not desert us, but journeys with us and walks alongside us.
On this page we share:
1. Tips for helping to start the conversation and making it go well
2. Ideas for some of the things you might want to think and talk about
3. Advice on talking to children about death and dying
4. Going deeper – for professionals
Crediting our source: Dying Matters is a UK-based coalition which aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life. It has a helpful series of pamphlets which contain good practical advice for lay people: here. We have drawn heavily on their excellent material on this page.
- Tips for helping to start the conversation and making it go well
Talking about important subjects does not generally go well if people feel rushed or stressed – so think about what would be a good time and place to have a conversation.
Dying Matters offer this helpful advice on how to start a conversation:
Consider beginning with a question rather than a statement: “Have you ever wondered what would happen…?”; “Do you think we should talk about…?” Or you could start with something direct but reassuring, like “I know that talking about these things is never easy…” or “We’ve never talked about this before but…” `
If you’re starting the conversation, you may need to reassure the other person that you’re not raising the subject because you’re very ill, and have been withholding the information from them. Be totally honest about how you feel from the start. If you are open, there may be either laughter or tears – don’t be afraid of either. Listen to what the other person is saying, rather than always steering the conversation yourself. Don’t feel the need to fill silences – leave room for the other person to bring up subjects that are important to them.
2. Some of the things you might want to think and talk about
There are many things you might want or need to think or talk about. These are some of the key areas, but everyone is different and not everyone will have all of these options. You don’t have to talk about all of these things at once.
- If you or your loved one become(s) seriously ill, how would you like to be cared for, within the limits of what is possible in your context? If you have a choice, how long do you want doctors to treat you and where would you like to die?
- How would you like to be remembered? Funeral arrangements, including any special things you would like to have remembered, read, said or sung at the funeral.
- Who should have any possessions you particularly value / your will.
- Care of dependents.
As well as these practical considerations, you might also want to think and talk about things such as:
- Are there any worries you would like to discuss about being ill and dying?
- What would you like people to know before you die?
- Do you want or need to mend a relationship (or try to), say sorry to someone or tell someone you love them?
People who are approaching death might also want to talk about the big questions of faith, even if they have not wanted to previously. People might want to ask questions about whether God exists, what lies beyond death and they might want someone to pray with them. This extract from the Church of England’s resources on facing death and mortality provides helpful thoughts for if you are talking with someone towards the end of their life:
It is hard to think of the world carrying on after your death. It may help to remember the ways you have changed your own part of the world. The list of possibilities is endless, but yours may include things like bringing up children, providing employment in a business, sharing laughter through humour, giving purpose to others through voluntary work or showing kindness to a neighbour.
- Talking to children about death and dying:
The principles of talking with children are the same as talking with adults: don’t be afraid to talk to children about what is happening in ways that are appropriate for their age; it will help them to make sense of what is happening.
Dying Matters has a helpful leaflet about talking with children about death and dying here. It has sections on why children need to talk about dying, addressing the subject, questions children often ask and suggested answers, what to say and what not to say and tips on how to talk about death and dying with children. These include:
- Listen carefully
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know
- Remember that paying attention is more important than answering a question well
- Try not to look uncomfortable answering children’s questions – it may create the impression that talking about these things is not allowed.
- Children have short attention spans – immediate answers and a series of short conversations is likely to be better than long sessions.
- Be clear and direct in your language.
- There’s no harm in a child seeing that you are sad or crying if someone has died. It may help them know their own grief is acceptable.
Like adults, children might also want to talk about the big questions of faith: about God, what happens after death and so on. The principles above will be helpful in answering such questions.
Many children are fearful at the moment because of COVID-19 and the UK charity Child Bereavement UK say, “children who have previously been bereaved are likely to show a stronger reaction and may worry that they or someone they know will die”. There are some excellent guides on talking with children about COVID-19 and helping them with their fears about family members dying available. See:
- Going deeper – for professionals
In this section, we start with some of the things you might need to think about within your work, followed by a section on looking after yourself when having to hear and speak about COVID-19 so much.
Things you might need to think about within your work
The British Association of Social Workers website has some helpful information on providing end of life care and the conversations you might need to have as a professional working in this area. See here. The ideas in this first section are informed by their material…
Some conversations may be needed to find out whether others (dependents, elderly relatives or children for example) will be made particularly vulnerable by the death of this person, and how to reach them and arrange for care and support to be put in place.
When talking about death and dying with individuals, families and communities it may be appropriate to include a risk assessment of those who might be at particular risk in the extended family or community. As Christians, our calling is to focus on those who are particularly vulnerable, those whose rights are compromised, who may be from different ethnic, religious or language groups, refugees and migrants, those with disability and those who are at risk of domestic violence.
Be aware of the possible need to refer people -with their consent- to social or other services if this is safe in your country. You may be the first person to talk to them about their own upcoming death, or that of a loved one. You may be the person to help them reach out and say goodbye remotely to family members or loved ones if they are in another country, or if the person is isolated in hospital and cannot receive visitors.
Looking after yourself when having to hear and speak about COVID-19 so much
These are things that carry a huge responsibility and can put the caregiver under mental strain. When your usual ways of relaxing are restricted because of lockdown measures and the news is full of further talk about COVID-19, death and dying, stress levels can increase. Increased talk about death and dying may be particularly distressing for people who have been bereaved, and for those with anxiety and depression.
The UK website Cruse has some practical suggestions to help, including:
- Limit or take a break from social and other news media, checking a few trusted sites once or twice a day.
- Set daily routines
- Include time for relaxation, thinking about activities that you find relaxing
- Ask others around you to talk about different things