End of life care

Starting to talk about your illness

Living with a terminal diagnosis and knowing that you are dying can make you feel isolated, even though life is going on around you.

It can feel very difficult to talk about your illness or the fact that you are dying, but talking with your loved ones can help. You or your family and friends may even find it a relief to have the subject out in the open, even if you find it upsetting.

Not talking can create worries or distance between you and the people who are important to you, even if you are usually very close. Talking about your illness and death can help to make you feel closer and more able to deal with the future, and your worries, together.

Starting the conversation

You might want to talk about any number of things, including your feelings about death, your worries, your fears, your wishes for your future care, your funeral, or things you would like to give to people.

You don’t have to talk about everything at once. Different situations work for different people. There is no right or wrong way to start talking about dying.

If you find it hard to bring up the topic, some of the suggestions below might help:

  • Choose a time and a place where you won’t be disturbed. You could try saying something like: "It would help me if we could talk about my situation", "How do you feel about that?", or "I know it might be difficult, but do you think we should talk about what’s going to happen?" Starting with a question may help, because it gives the other person a chance to say how they feel about it.
  • Listen to what they say, and if they change the subject or don’t want to talk about it, try saying something like, “OK, we don’t have to talk about it now, but I hope we can talk about it another time. It’s something I would really like to do.”
  • It is normal for people to get upset or feel emotional when they talk about the death of someone they love. Try not to let this put you off. Getting upset or crying can be a release from any worries or pressure that people are feeling. Once this pressure is released, it may help you feel able to discuss things more openly.

Things you might want to say

If you know you are coming to the end of your life, it is important to say the things you would like to the people you care about. This might be your partner, parents, brothers and sisters, children, grandchildren, and friends.

You can tell people you love them. You might want to tell them they have meant a lot to you, or that a disagreement you had does not matter. It might feel very emotional.

If it becomes overwhelming, say so, and suggest talking again at another time. You could write a letter, make a video or fill a memory box with things that remind you of the times you have shared.

You can also think about dealing with any emotional unfinished business. If there is anyone you feel you need to apologise to, you can say you are sorry. If you have had an argument with someone, you could consider getting back in touch. If the damage from an argument cannot be healed, try not to worry about it. At least you know you have tried your best to make things right.

If you feel you are not ready to bring up the subject of your death with your loved ones, you might want to discuss it first with someone less close to you, such as a chaplain, doctor, nurse or counsellor.

Ideas, support and other people's experiences of dying

The Dying Matters website has information on death and dying, including talking about death and dying and leaflets to help you start talking about dying. There is information for carers and loved ones too.

Healthtalk.org has videos and written interviews of people talking about the support they have got one-to-one or in support groups. It also has videos of people offering advice to other people approaching the end of life.

Dr Kate Granger has cancer, and writes a blog about living with a terminal diagnosis.

Page last reviewed: 15/09/2014

Next review due: 09/07/2017

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