Talking about death and dying is something we know we should do and see the benefits of doing, yet don’t.

We are all going to die one day. It’s understandable why people don’t dwell on this, but avoiding the conversation won’t make death or dying easier, and can sometimes make things worse.

Talking about end of life and doing it early, gives people the opportunity to share their hopes, fears and wishes for end of life. This control over the process can be very powerful and help to deal with any fears your loved one may be experiencing.

Mental Capacity

A phrase you might hear is about whether or not someone has ‘capacity’ to make decisions on their own behalf. This is especially true if someone is living with dementia. The Mental Capacity Act sets out the rules for how ‘capacity’ is determined, and people will always be assumed to be capable of making their own choices unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.

However, it is important to aim to get all end of life care plans in place before there is any risk of losing capacity – whether this is due to a lasting condition like dementia or temporary circumstances.

When planning for end of life , there are some important considerations. The need for care and support and discussing getting older and end of life may prompt conversations around:

  • Making a will.
  • Planning and sharing funeral wishes.
  • Writing down preferences for care and support at the end of life – including preferred places to die.
  • Creating lasting power of attorney documents to cover financial or healthcare decisions or both.
  • Making a decision on organ donation.
  • Making financial plans.
  • Thinking about digital legacy and access to online accounts.
  • Sharing wishes with partners or close relatives.

Broaching the subject

Few of us want to be the first person to start a conversation about death and dying, but many people find it a relief to talk openly about the subject. Staring the conversation gives other people the space to do this.

Try to choose the right place and time to start the conversation. Avoid stressful situations and gauge how comfortable the person is talking about their future. Maybe use discussions about care and support needs to bring up their final wishes too.

There’s no right or wrong way to address the topic of dying but here are a few sensitive suggestions:

  • Starting the conversation with a question rather than a statement, ‘Have you ever wondered what would happen…?’ or ‘Do you think we should talk about…?’
  • Other starting points can be conversations about recent experiences of other people’s deaths or funerals, whether these are friends, celebrities or fictional characters.
  • Talking about one element of a funeral – what song you want, what kind of flowers – can be a place to start as this is more about your personal memories and tastes.  
  • Sometimes it helps to start with something direct but reassuring like, ‘I know talking about these things is never easy…’ or ‘We’ve never talked about this before but…’
  • It may be easiest to ask people about what they definitely wouldn’t want as a way of getting the conversation started.
  • Encourage everyone to be totally honest abut how they feel from the start. If you’re all open, there may be both laughter and tears – don’t be afraid of either.
  • Accept that it will be upsetting to some degree, but don’t let that put you off. Death is upsetting because it means losing someone we love, but one of the ways we can show that love is by supporting open and honest conversations about it.