End of life care

Starting to talk about your illness

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

It can feel very difficult to speak about your illness or the fact you're 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 you feel closer and more able to deal with the future and your worries together.

Starting the conversation about dying

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's no right or wrong way to start talking about dying.

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

Choose a time and a place that 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.

Listen to what they say. 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's 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 people are feeling. Once this is out, it may help you feel able to discuss things more openly.

Things you might want to say

If you know you're coming to the end of your life, it's 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 mean a lot to you or that a disagreement you had doesn't matter. It might feel very emotional.

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

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

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

You can also talk to the Samaritans free of charge for emotional support by phone, email or in person.

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. There's information for carers and loved ones too.

Healthtalk.org has videos and written interviews with people talking about the support they receive. It also has videos of people offering advice to others who are approaching the end of life.

In Dr Kate Granger's blog, she talks openly about her life with terminal cancer. Dr Granger died in 2016.

Page last reviewed: 30/10/2017

Next review due: 30/10/2020

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