Those two words tend to make most people shut down and back away in discomfort, possibly even anxiety and/or fear as well.
People tend to avoid discussing topics that upset them, and what topic is more upsetting than one associated with pain, suffering, and loss?
Here in the West, death is pretty much a verboten subject. Few people even want to think about death, let alone discuss it: there’s an aura of fear about the topic, and it’s certainly not something to be talked about in “polite” company.
To do so will inevitably result in accusations about being morbid, and those who are comfortable talking about death are viewed with suspicion.
This is quite saddening, since it’s a subject that affects all of us, from trying to explain to a child why their goldfish is bobbing around at the top of the bowl, to facing the inevitable deaths of our parents and grandparents.
As I write this, my husband’s grandmother is deteriorating in a hospital after having a massive stroke, and my own aunt just died after a long illness. Truth be told, this article is overdue because of these situations, so I’m drawing from personal experience as I type this out.
The thing is, death is never just a personal matter; it affects pretty much every aspect of a person’s life
If there’s a death in the family that needs to be attended to, whether because you’re organizing the funeral and sorting out the person’s affairs, or if you need time off for a funeral or grief counseling, you’ll need to discuss the situation with other people.
This can be daunting, painful, even awkward or embarrassing depending on how you process your emotions, and different scenarios call for a variety of different approaches.
How To Discuss Death With The Dying
As mentioned earlier, the topic of death upsets and unsettles a lot of people, and it may be really hard to spend time with someone who’s transitioning toward the end of their life.
Many people try to brush the topic away, including some health professionals. An elderly person in hospital whose body is obviously shutting down is likely to be put on antidepressants and told – with a big, cheerful smile – that they’ll be just fine and will outlive us all!
This can be incredibly frustrating for a person who is trying to accept and work through their approaching end.
Similarly frustrating is when a dying person wants to talk about what they’re experiencing, or about what their preferences are for death itself, their funeral, etc. and the person they’re talking to changes the subject, or says things like, “Oh, don’t talk like that,” or “I don’t want to even think about losing you.”
It’s not about you.
The idea of losing this person you love may be incredibly hard, but when you’re with them, spending time with them while they’re moving toward the end, it’s neither the time nor the place for you to seek soothing from them.
You need to hold space for them.
If they need or want to talk about things that have been weighing on their mind, let them speak, and listen without judging.
Some people get very religious or spiritual toward the end of life, occasionally in directions their family members wouldn’t have expected.
If you and your family have always followed a specific religious faith and suddenly your parent or spouse embraces something totally different as they face their death, it’s not the time to remind them of what you believe in: it’s a time to listen and support them unconditionally.
They need comfort and strength, and whichever belief is needed to grant them that peace needs to be respected.
If there are things that you feel you need to get off your chest, such as long-held secrets or feelings, ask them if you have permission to broach those subjects. They may not have the emotional wherewithal to be able to process anything heavy: please respect that.
Ultimately, let them take the lead with regard to what they would or would not like to talk about. Sometimes, all they may wish is to sit in silence, in the comfortable, quiet presence of someone who loves and accepts them as they are.
Grant them that.
Approaching Family And Friends Of The Bereaved
This one’s tricky.
Just about all of us have been witness to a person who shows up at a funeral or memorial service, howling inappropriately and holding their own pity party.
Folks like this tend to use people’s losses as an opportunity to garner sympathy from others. They’ll jump on the loss bandwagon, bemoan the loss of the one who died – even if they haven’t seen or spoken to them in years – and act like weepy messes.
Don’t be that person. Please.
If you were close to the person who died, offer your assistance to someone in the immediate family.
Rather than the blanket statement “if you need anything, I’m there,” suggest a few ways in which you can help. This can range from organizing a meal train to taking care of children if needed.
When people are in the throes of grief, having someone else step in to take care of specific things that need to be done can be of immense help.
If you weren’t close to the person, this is not an opportunity for you to get close to their friends and family members. Even if you really want to make up for lost time and express heartfelt greetings, an outpouring of emotion and effort now, after the fact, will come across as self-serving and insincere.
Approaching them with quiet, graceful sincerity will be far more appreciated.
Should you attend the funeral, a handshake or hug will suffice: don’t take up too much of their attention, as they will be torn in a thousand different directions.
If you’re so inclined, send a condolence card with a sentiment such as: “X was a wonderful person, and they will be missed greatly.”
You can, if you like, write about a specific memory you had of the one who has passed, as long as it’s pithy and gentle.
If the family has requested a donation to a specific charity, you can do so, and let them know (again, succinctly) that you’ve donated in their loved one’s name.
If the family members and friends would like to forge a stronger connection with you, let it be on their terms, when they’re ready to do so.
Please, PLEASE whatever you do, don’t ever tell children that the person who has died has “gone to sleep,” is “resting,” or has “gone away.”
The associations with phrases like these can result in serious sleep anxiety in young, sensitive children who will end up afraid that if they fall asleep, they’ll never wake up again, or that a parent who’s gone on a business trip is gone forever.
If your own children are asking you questions about a recent death, please be as honest with them as possible.
They may be looking to you for all the answers, but it’s okay to let them know if you’re not sure about something. You appreciate honesty and sincerity from others, and children do as well.
Also, be sure that the responses you give are appropriate for your child’s age and emotional development.
Remember that preschoolers and those in earlier grades will likely think of death as temporary: they’ll need to be reminded a few times that grandpa or uncle so-and-so are gone forever. The same may go for children who have autism or developmental delays.
One thing that’s tricky to navigate is age and illness, when it comes to someone who has died.
It’s easy to associate death with old age, but what if it’s a classmate who has died of pediatric leukemia? Or a friend’s parent, killed in a car accident?
In situations like this, reassurance and calm are of the utmost importance, as the child may develop serious anxieties about being ill themselves, or losing you.
They might freak out if they get a cold or flu, thinking they’ll die like their classmate did… or they’ll cry when you drive off somewhere, believing you’ll never come back, like so-and so’s mom or dad.
When it comes to their fears, it’s important to ask what it is exactly that they’re worried about, and listen gently, actively, without judgment.
If they’re afraid that being sick means that they’ll die, reassure them that what they have is only a little cold, and it’s only REALLY sick people who die from their illness.
If their worry about your death is about no-one being around to take care of them, assure them that they are safe and loved, and just in case anything ever happens to you, there are plenty of other people who love them and will take care of them.
Name specific names, whether they’re relatives, godparents, or assigned guardians, so they know that they have a backup set of caregivers, and that they are safe.
If you’re interacting with someone else’s children, it’s important to speak to the parents about how they’re choosing to discuss death with their kids.
You may be in a situation where your belief system varies greatly from theirs, and it’s best not to confuse the children by telling them things that conflict with how their parents are choosing to reassure them.
Their parents might have told them that grandma went to heaven, which may not be on the same page as your belief in reincarnation. Or vice versa. Whatever it is that you believe, keep that to yourself when it comes to calming and soothing the wee ones.
There’s plenty of time for them to explore various spiritual paths once they’re old enough to do so on their own.
Regarding Colleagues And Casual Acquaintances
As mentioned earlier, one aspect of dealing with death is the need to tell those you interact with on a regular basis. If the person who passed on was close to you, you’re going to be affected by it, and that may manifest in a number of different ways.
Regardless of what your rapport with your boss might be, it’s important to let them know what’s going on.
Be honest, and authentic. Tell them that you’ve suffered a loss, that you will need some time off for the funeral (and counseling as needed), and that you’ll do your best to continue to work to your potential, but may need a little bit of compassion and understanding if you falter a little.
If you’re uncomfortable with telling everyone at the office what’s going on, you can let your boss know that you’re okay with them telling your immediate superior, but that if anyone asks why you have to leave early, or if you seem to be slacking off, that there’s a personal matter you’re attending to.
If you’re a freelancer, you can let your clients know via email. Phrase it in whichever way you feel most comfortable, depending on the type of rapport you have with each client.
Ultimately, keeping things succinct, calm, and professional is the way to go. Going into great detail about how the person died or what they suffered from is going to make everyone uncomfortable, so stick to the facts, and allow them to give you the space you need to heal.
For those of you who wish to discuss death in a supportive and open environment, do some searching to find out if there’s a Death Cafe happening anywhere near you.
Interacting with professionals who work in the fields of death and dying may reassure many of your own fears, as they deal with the very subjects that might be worrying you.
Trust that if you’re having difficulty processing issues surrounding death, you’re not the only one.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.