Planning Important Conversations Around Mortality

By Gina Vliet

Did you know? Not speaking about dying and death is like trying to keep a secret – it takes energy. Speaking about it frees up that energy, leaving you to get on with living. And we could all use more energy in our lives.


But before these conversations happen, we need to get comfortable ourselves with the subject matter.  Here are some simple things you can do to prepare for tackling the topic with others:


  • Get used to using the d-words: Say it with me! Dying, death, deceased, dead, and disposition! Dying, death, deceased, and disposition! It’s important to call it what it is. No euphemisms. It’s not morbid, it’s factual and direct.


  • Be intentional: Be clear on the topic and level of the conversation. Decide whether it’s going to be general or specific, theoretical or practical. Will you be speaking about a specific and personal issue, or do you just want to open the door to having future conversations about mortality? Trust me, you will want to have more than one.


  • Open the door gently: Discussing mortality doesn’t have to be solemn or serious. You may be breaking cultural taboos by talking about it, and it will likely be uncomfortable, so get creative. Use food, keep it casual, make it fun if that’s appropriate. Consider your audience, the topic, and what you’d like to get out of the conversation. The goal here is to open the door to future discussions.


  • Warn someone: Never ambush someone with this topic. Don’t invite mom over for tea on the pretense of checking out that cool thing you found at the farmer’s market then surprise her with a conversation on what’s being left to whom in your will. Breaking someone’s trust like this can slam the door shut on future forays into the topic.


  • Set the stage: Use a recent death as an opening to begin the conversation. If your conversation is general/theoretical, use a celebrity death, for example. If you intend to speak about a specific or practical aspect of dying or death, use a more personal example, such as an experience with someone close to you.


  • Provide a safe space: Consider where you’ll be having the conversation. People are more open to discussing emotional topics when they feel safe and secure. Food helps with that, as does a bit of privacy. Consider coffee over the kitchen table or a walk in the woods. You know what your audience needs; work with that.


Remember: you will most likely be breaking a social/cultural barrier when bringing up the topic. Change is uncomfortable, so be prepared for a bit of discomfort. Have empathy, open the door gently, and most importantly, don’t push anyone into talking if they don’t want to.  Just letting them know you are willing to talk about the d-words is a huge step forward, so count that as win no matter the outcome.


Two great resources

  • fear of talking
  • starting a conversation
  • how to open up a difficult conversation

  • downloadable prep worksheets, starter kits
  • how to talk to your doctor