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Dying Matters Week: Tuesday – How do we talk about death?

We conducted a short poll yesterday and around 18% of participants said they would struggle to talk about death with a loved one.

So today let’s look at how to open up this conversation for those who feel they would struggle.

The opening is often the hardest part, and many find that when the words start coming they flow easily, but how do we cross that first, awkward hurdle?

There are lots of reasons why people don’t want to talk about death. They’re scared of saying the wrong thing, fear of their own mortality, denial, just not a big talker. There’s so many different walls for so many different people, but we want to look at breaking some of these down completely (or at least putting in a little window).

First, we’re going to share this fantastic link below. This link gives strong and clear advice on how to talk to someone who is dying and how to listen and engage well. If you’re looking for advice on how to talk to a loved one who is ill or nearing death, this is a great resource.

Dying Matters – Talking About Death

But how do we open the conversation when there is no diagnosis of illness, no disease, no sign of impending death? As previously discussed, having conversations about death and your wishes can be incredibly beneficial to you and your loved ones should the worst happen, but they can also be useful in simply breaking down the stigma of talking about death, so let’s now look at how to start these:

Dining With Death – Conversation Menu (PDF):

This is a fantastic tool from the team at It’s a great ice breaker that sets out the conversation as starters, mains and desserts, allowing participants to ease into the conversation.

Origami Game:

Another one from the team at A variant of the classic playground fortune telling game, simply print out, follow the instructions and chat through the topics that appear.

Lucky Dip:

Print, or write, subjects on pieces of paper, pop them in a hat, and draw them out one at a time. Subjects can include gentler questions: What song you’d like at your funeral? Have you written a Will? They can also include harder hitting questions (these can be added to the hat later in the game once everyone’s a settled in): Do you fear death? Opinions on assisted suicide? Where do you want to die?

Attend a Death Cafe:

“At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session.”

What’s on your bucket list?

This is usually a nice fun one, chose 5,10 (or however many you like) things you want to do before you die. It can be fun and often insightful to see what your friends and loved ones unexpected aspirations are. These may result in activities you do together building fond and lasting memories.

There are lots of different ways we can start to talk about death. These are just five popular methods. Remember, the conversations don’t have to focus on your own mortality, discussions such as the Conversation Menu’s “How do you think Scotland would take to the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’, when families gather to celebrate and remember friends and family members who have died?” are beneficial in normalising talking about death with family and friends.

Now you might be reading this thinking “that’s all well in good, but I still don’t know how to start the conversation” and that is a fair point. Unfortunately there’s no sure fire way to do this, but here are some suggestions that might help. If there’s been a story in the news, a scene in a movie, book or TV show you’re watching, an event in an acquaintances life, use these topics as a jumping off point. It doesn’t have to be a sinister and morose moment that spawns a conversation. Slapstick funeral in a sitcom? “What song would you pick?”, “Casual or smart wear?” One simple question can open the door to a full conversation and you can then suggest giving the Conversation Menu, the Bucket List or the Origami Game a go.

You may realise you don’t even need the tools and that you’re handling the conversation just fine. But these tools are always there for you to fall back on. 

Good luck, and enjoy talking openly and honestly about what was previously a potentially scary topic.



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