Important conversations about death

Bereavement volunteer Jane Hamerton gives some tips on how to have difficult conversations on death and dying.

By Jane Hamerton · May 13, 2021

We need to talk about death and dying, but it can be really hard to start the conversation.

Bereavement Volunteer Jane Hamerton share tips on how to have these difficult talks, or cope when there wasn’t a chance to do so.

Why should plan before we die?

I came to Cruse after someone I knew died a very unhappy death in hospital. It was upsetting for so many of us. I googled ‘a good death’, which started me on a journey. I’ve now been a volunteer for  Cruse  for  four years. I work individually with bereaved people in Suffolk. I also take shifts on the Cruse national helpline, and have done so for over a year now.

Everyone’s grief is unique. But, after supporting many clients, I hear very similar stories:

  • Someone did not make a will. Sudden deaths can cause many problems, including potential homelessness. There might be a case where a house was promised to someone, but there was nothing in writing.
  • A few clients didn’t know what kind of funeral a loved one wanted . Was it a burial or cremation? What songs/hymns did they want?
  • I have heard about arguments about which family member has the ashes,  and what they should do with them.
  • Sometimes there are painful discussions about who gets personal possessions.
  • There is often a lot of guilt around an unhappy stay in hospital, along with many questions about what could have been done differently.

“If only …. What if ….. I keep getting flashbacks …. I didn’t tell them I loved them …. I wished my parent had been at home at the end ….. I wish it could have been better … “

Common bereavement thoughts

These can make it much harder for people to process their grief. Sometimes the grief work can’t even begin until the situation is resolved.

Bereaved people often also mention physical symptoms – unexplained chest pains, headaches, not being able to sleep, difficulty going back to work and even holding down a job.

I was so struck by how difficult it is for people to have these challenging conversations . So, I decided to train to become an end of life doula. And, I have found that, when you start talking, people very willing to talk about it and share their stories.

We need to talk about death and dying yet we are scared of starting the conversation. We prepare for birthdays and weddings but not the inevitable fact of death – it seems to be the ‘elephant in the room’! 


Starting difficult conversations

How do you start the conversation when it seems so daunting?

I ask someone how do you eat an elephant? In small bites!

Starting is the main task. It might be that you see a film, or someone famous dies – keep an eye out for anything which could be an opening. You don’t have start by sitting down formally with a pen and paper – ask a question while on a walk, or sitting beside someone in a car. It can be easier to start when you’re not face to face.

It’s not just one conversation. It has taken me and my children five years to complete decisions about burials versus cremations. This is because they couldn’t decide. But once you have started talking, each time it will get easier.

What to discuss

Having a will is very important. Dying without one makes life very complicated for the family. If you have a property, a partner and children this is even more vital.  Find out why.

If you were to suddenly have an accident, does someone you trust have your passwords? Do they know where important documents are kept? Find out about your digital legacy.

Who can speak on your behalf if you can’t? One million people in the UK will be living with dementia by 2025. You might want to consider making a  Lasting Power of Attorney . There are two kinds – finance and health and welfare.

Are there any treatments you do or don’t want if you’re no longer able to  communicate?  An advanced decision (or living will) means you can then put it out of your mind, and get on with the business of living.

The Advance Statement or Statement of Wishes and Preferences means you can write down anything which is important to you. You can cover any aspect of your future health or social care. It takes pressure off family and friends  to make decisions at a time of crisis.  

If you’re worried about discussing these things in person, you could write a letter or email as a starting point. You don’t have to send it, but it may help you think of what you might say to someone. Try using this letter template .

A good website to help you talk about it and record your wishes is Compassion in Dying.

How to cope if you didn’t speak to your loved one

Despite our best intentions, sometimes there was no chance to talk to someone before they died. Regrets, grief and anger following a death are very common.

The best thing to do if you are struggling is to try and take care of yourself. Here’s some things that may help:

  • Talk to us on Cruse helpline  – talking to a trained person can really help make sense of how you are feeling.  No-one can ‘fix it’ but Cruse understands.
  • The Samaritans are open 24/7 it’s confidential and a safe space to share difficult feelings
  • Move your body – do anything, getting out of bed, going for a walk, being in nature, Research shows if we don’t move we will feel worse.
  • Reach out to a friend who ‘gets it’ – who will listen and not judge.
  • Try and sleep, eat and drink as healthily as you can and take ‘baby steps’ with yourself. Talk to yourself as you would a best friend. One day at a time.
  • Listen to a podcast or audio book or maybe watch a favourite film or listen to music that moves you. Maybe spending time on a hobby or journaling might just shift something within you?
  • Remember grief affects you physically and emotionally. Tears release cortisol, they’e a normal reaction to grief.
  • If you need advice over legal issues or practical conflicts after someone dies, the National Bereavement Service offers free advice and signposts to legal services.