How to talk about death

Marie Claire Dorking
The 'death positive' movement aims to make it easier to talk about dying [Photo: Getty]
The 'death positive' movement aims to make it easier to talk about dying [Photo: Getty]

Let's talk about death. It sounds sort of morbid, right? One of those off-limit topics that we avoid at all costs until we’re actually forced to deal with it.

But, there’s a new wellness trend that hopes to change all that, beginning with simply acknowledging that death is a normal part of life.

Just yesterday, Marie Curie launched a new campaign urging people to talk more openly about death.

The campaign forms part of an entire ‘death positive movement’ encouraging a shift in the way we think and talk about death, with podcasts, social media platforms and book releases tackling the subject head on.

From award-winning podcast The Griefcast, run by actor and comedian Cariad Lloyd, to book releases Life. Death. Whatever. written by funeral director and Louise Winter and end-of-life doula Anna Lyons, the movement shares the collective aim of switching up the way we view death.

Knowing we should be more open to talking about dying is one thing, but actually going about kicking of the death chat is quite something else.

“Talking about death remains very much a taboo subject and consequently people struggle to know how to do it for fear of causing offence or upset,” explains Dr Max Malik, Psychiatrist and owner of Elate Health.

“This causes a distance or lack of connection with people who are suffering from grief and can add to their feelings of loneliness and isolation.”

READ MORE: New poll reveals how little we know about dying

It's hard to talk about death [Photo: Getty]
It's hard to talk about death [Photo: Getty]

The problem for many people is a sort of misplaced belief that if we talk about it, somehow we’re going to open ourselves up to death itself.

“It is so easy to get caught up in the business of living that we forget that we, and those we love, are going to die, and death is a subject that many people are fearful of, but talking about the weather doesn’t make it rain and talking about death isn’t going to bring the event any nearer,” explains Lianna Champ, Grief Recovery Specialist and author of How to Grieve Like a Champ.

And besides death is one of the few things in life that is unavoidable and it is therefore important that the first time we discuss it isn’t when we or someone we love is actually facing it.

So how do we go actually go about talking about death? Yahoo UK spoke to the grief experts about opening up the dying discussion.

Don’t shy away from it

According to Dr Malik the most important thing that you can do for someone who has experienced death or who is dying is to be warm and open with them. “Don't shy away from talking about the obvious or cross the road to avoid them, often at a time that they need to talk most,” he says.

He suggests being honest, even explaining that it makes you feel uncomfortable or that you don't want to offend or upset them if necessary.

“By giving them the opportunity to talk, and showing with your body language that you're there for them you'll allow them to talk openly,” he adds.

Choose your cue

Most of us would feel uncomfortable jumping right in and asking questions about death, so Champ suggests taking another route to kick start the discussion.

“How about hearing a song and saying ‘This is the song I want to be played at my funeral. Have you thought about what you want?’” she suggests.

“Or watching something unfold in a film and ask, ‘Would you want that?’ or ‘What do you think you would do in that situation?’ This opens the door to all kinds of conversations,” she continues.

Another suggestion is asking how that person would like to be remembered, with some suggestions at the ready.

“Once we get used to it, it becomes easier every time we broach the subject of death,” she adds.

Get in the habit of being emotionally honest

Being able to have a frank and honest discussion about death begins with being open about other difficult topics.

“Create the good habit of being emotionally honest about how we are feeling and being able to have open and honest conversations and really listening to what is being said to us without jumping in with our own opinion,” suggests Champ.

“If we can have conversations where we don’t feel judged or criticised, we can find it so much easier to talk about the scary stuff, like death.”

Remember there is no one-size fits all approach

Everyone is unique. Every relationship we have is unique. Therefore there is no one size fits all approach about talking about death.

Marie Curie have put together some tips that should work across the board in having the death discussion.

- Tell the person that you want to talk about something which is important to you.
- Explain what you want to talk about - it may be general things about planning ahead or it might be something very specific about your wishes.
- Try to be as clear as possible about what you mean, so that they understand what you're saying.
- Ask them how they feel about talking about things.
- Check in with them - do they understand what you mean? How do they feel about talking about this? So they need some time to reflect on things before talking about it?
- Be clear that you're not expecting to work through everything immediately and this is the beginning of a conversation.

READ MORE: What makes us scared of dying?

How to talk to children about death [Photo: Getty]
How to talk to children about death [Photo: Getty]

How to talk to children about death

Be open and honest

“Talking about death can be a hard subject for adults and children alike, and often children may be scared to mention it in case they upset you,” says Dr Malik.

“But it's important to be open and answer any questions they have. Don't be tempted to lie or sugar-coat the truth, or try to hide your pain. Reassure them that it's natural and healthy to cry and respond well to honestly, clear explanations.”

Dr Malik also suggests allowing children the opportunity to ask questions.

“Reassurance is key too and let them talk about how they feel without worrying about upsetting you,” he adds.

Use stories to explain the natural cycle of life and death

According to Dipti Tait, hypnotherapist and author of Good Grief children’s brains respond well to stories. “If we think about the bedtime story, it is a comforting time, and creates a safe place in the mind,” she says.

She suggests using storytelling to help children link their experience to something else that feels familiar, “This will create a comfortable reference point in their mind,” she explains.

“For example, using the explanation of the cycle of nature: A Summertime leaf living happily on a tree for that season and then falling off in the Autumn and decomposing and disappearing in Winter but in its place a Springtime bud regrows and turns into another Summertime leaf a year later can be a nice way of talking about how death is part of our natural world,” she says.

Label new emotions to give them a safe place in the mind

Tait says that when children feel a new emotion, the unfamiliarity can cause confusion in the subconscious mind as the brain will not have a reference to this emotion and the process of what to do with it won’t have been developed.

“If it is negative feeling that discomfort of not knowing what to do with it can spill over into over-worry,” she explains. “To help alleviate the worry, it is a good idea to explore the new emotions with the child to create some familiarity with it and this can help with processing it appropriately.

“For example if the child understands sadness, but has never felt guilt. If they describe guilt and link it to sadness, their brain can file it away as a relevant emotion to feel in the circumstance.”

Seek further help

If it is proving tricky to help your child understand, it could be worth seeking expert advice. “Sometimes children cannot cope with these events, depending on the circumstances, on their own so I would advise talking to an appropriately qualified specialist for further help,” Dr Malik says. “There is never any shame in seeking help, we do it all the time for a broken leg so why not for our minds?”