When Wendy’s partner asked what she’d do when he was gone, she was taken by surprise. “I said I didn’t know, but would probably throw myself into my work. And there ended the conversation.”
After her partner had died, Wendy realised she had unintentionally shut him down. “This had been a golden opportunity for us to share how we felt, our fears, our thoughts and to reach a point of acceptance and gratitude,” Wendy says. “It could have led to many more intimate conversations around his legacy, wishes and the love we shared.”
Jo Wood, Violet Clinical Committee member and palliative care social worker, says anxious feelings are normal when talking about the future with someone who is dying. She shares signs your loved one is ready for a deeper conversation, and some tips for having one.
Signs to look out for
Jo explains certain questions and statements can indicate your loved one is ready to talk. They might say something like, “I’m worried the treatment won’t work”, “What do you think happens after we’re gone?”, or “Who will look after X if something happens to me?”
These are cues for caregivers to “gently peel back the layers to gain a deeper understanding of that person’s experience,” Jo says. Being curious about where your loved one is coming from and asking open-ended questions can lead to further exploration of their concerns. Jo adds body language cues and facial expressions can also indicate your loved one is ready to talk.
Don’t be afraid of silence or strong feelings
Silence provides a space for people to process what they’re thinking and feeling, and to give voice to their thoughts, Jo says. “Powerful connections and reflections can arise from these moments. Reflective listening skills and establishing an environment of trust and openness can help the person who is dying feel safe enough to speak at a deeper level.”
Strong emotions also shouldn’t be feared. “Providing your full attention can demonstrate that you genuinely care and are willing to be open to their experience. Small gestures such as a touch on the arm or saying something such as, ‘This must be so, so difficult’ may be what is needed in that moment.” Jo advises letting your loved one take the lead and trying not to rush them.
If you miss an opportunity
Don’t worry if you’ve missed a ‘sign’ your loved one wanted to talk, Jo says. “If a loved one initiates a conversation about death and dying, sometimes the caregiver may not feel ready and may not engage straight away.
“Coming back to a conversation later is ok. The caregiver might say, ‘I know last week you started to talk about X. I’m really sorry I wasn’t there for you in the way you needed me at that time. I felt a little scared too and didn’t really know what to say or how to respond. I’d really like to talk about that with you now’”. Ideally, do this at a time when you can dedicate your full attention to your loved one without interruptions.
You may be surprised by how openly your loved one talks about death and dying, she adds. “Some people feel very ready and want to reassure their caregivers that they are okay.” There will also be times a dying person won’t want to talk about it, and it’s important not to force it on them. As Jo says, “We need to respect individuals’ methods of coping, and attempt to provide a safe and supportive space to foster conversations to occur organically.”
Because we all communicate in different ways, there are no scripts for these conversations, Jo says. She recommends adapting these suggestions in a way that feels comfortable and authentic for you.
Conversations like these may happen in small bursts over time, or not at all, and that is okay, Jo stresses. “Life is messy and unpredictable and sometimes situations play out in a way that is different to what we had hoped for or expected.”
Jo says in her experience, most people know they’re dying, so it’s unlikely you’ll upset your loved one by talking about it. In fact, “People often comment on feeling ‘lighter’ and ‘free’ when they have been able to speak about what is on their mind without the other person attempting to fix, judge or minimise. It’s also important to reach out for guidance about initiating these sometimes-difficult conversations if you really don’t know where to start.”
Wendy says she regrets not going deeper with her partner’s question. “Perhaps if I had someone like a Violet Guide to talk to, who really understood what it meant to be caring for someone at the end of life, I may have gained a different perspective, and been brave enough to engage fully in a valuable conversation for both of us.”