How to talk about death with family and friends
Published April 2023 | 7 min read
Expert contributors Nathan MacArthur, specialist grief counsellor and accredited mental health social worker at Sydney Grief Counselling Services; Jeremy Cowden, psychologist at PSYCH2U
Words by Bonnie Bayley
If someone close to you has died and you’re grieving – or you know someone who is – here’s how to approach the topic sensitively.
Death, loss, grief and bereavement will affect us all at some point, but many of us don’t really know how to talk about death.
“The thought of no longer being here is a terrifying prospect, so there’s the personal mortality side of it, but the other side is we’re scared of saying the wrong thing to someone who is struggling [with grief],” says Nathan MacArthur, specialist grief counsellor and accredited mental health social worker at Sydney Grief Counselling Services.
Still, if you’re in the depths of bereavement, learning to talk about death and your loss to other people, especially people who are empathetic, can be a powerful way to help process it.
“It helps ease the burden and stops us feeling like we’re going mad or are the only one to feel this way,” explains Jeremy Cowden, psychologist at PSYCH2U. “It can also give us a bit of a reality check, because when people grieve, they often experience guilt, but sometimes if you can hear yourself say something, you can start to look at it from the outside.”
Here, Nathan and Jeremy share their advice on what to say in a range of scenarios where the subject of death or dying comes up.
Scenario #1: You’ve lost someone or a pet you love dearly and you’re feeling miserable. You want your people to understand how you feel and support you but don’t want to be a burden.
How to raise the topic: “Firstly, it’s about picking your audience. You may have some friends that are able to do the practical stuff, some that can do the distracting stuff, and some who are able to sit more comfortably with the emotional stuff,” says Nathan.
Try saying this: “I’m really not doing well” or “It’s hit me harder than I expected”.
“If you’re finding it too overwhelming to express what you’re feeling, start with this. It’s a good way of inviting someone to engage in the conversation,” says Jeremy.
Being able to identify your needs, and how you’d like them to be met, can help you get the support you need (and lets others feel helpful, too). “You might say something along the lines of, ‘I just need you to check in with me once a week about how I’m doing’, or ‘I’d love you to share some memories with me about the person who has died’,” says Nathan.
In the case of pet loss, it helps to confide in a fellow pet owner. Also, describing specifically what you miss about your pet or their significance in your life will help others better empathise with you.
Scenario #2: You’re struggling with grief and wondering if seeing a mental health professional could help. How do you open up about something so personal, and share the thoughts and feelings you’re having?
How to raise the topic: “If you’re wondering whether it’s useful to see a psychologist or counsellor, it probably is – at least for a one-off to see what’s happening,” advises Jeremy, who recommends asking your GP for a referral or starting with a phone support service, like Griefline, Beyond Blue or PSYCH2U. While there’s no timeline on ‘moving on’, according to Nathan, there tends to be a second wave of people seeking counselling about 13 months after a loss.
If you'd like faster, easier access to qualified mental health professionals, we’re offering a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a psychologist for eligible members*.
Try saying this: “I’m really struggling to deal with my grief and I’m not sure what else to do or how to talk to you about it?”
This is a good entry point for your counsellor to work with you, says Nathan. Sometimes grief can unearth unexpected emotions like anger or even behaviours, like substance use, that you may feel ashamed about. Talking about the parts you are struggling with can be helpful. Remember that grief counsellors are experienced in helping navigate this.
Nathan says that with grief counselling, “The priorities are: ‘What are the biggest struggles for me right now?’, ‘What have I tried so far that hasn’t worked?’ and ‘Are there other things going on in my life that might be making this more challenging, like family estrangements, work stress or pre-existing mental health concerns?’ It can help to think about these before your first appointment.”
Scenario #3: You’ve had a diagnosis of a serious or terminal illness, and you’re now contemplating your own mortality. You want to confide in family and friends, so that they can hopefully offer support.
How to raise the topic: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for sharing heavy news with people in your life. “Some people tell one trusted friend and ask them to talk to other people for them. Other people will have individual talks with the different people in their life, some people will get everyone together and talk about it in one go, or if it’s a complicated health matter, they may bring in a couple of key family members to talk about it with a doctor present,” says Jeremy.
Choose a quiet place to tell the news, and if it’s helpful, bring print-outs of information so you can answer any questions that are likely to come up.
Try saying this: “There might be times when I need to talk about being scared – is there some way I can signal to you, almost like a code word, when I need you to just listen, not try to fix things, just to create space for me to download everything that’s going through my head?”
Let people know there may be times you want to talk about your fears and worries, and other times you want to focus on hope, or deal with practical matters.
Scenario #4: Your ageing parent, grandparent or friend is unwell, in a nursing home or perhaps palliative care, but talking about ‘the end’ feels confronting. You might also need to address practical matters like death planning, writing a will or assisted dying.
How to raise the topic: If it’s your loved one or friend who’s raised the topic, don’t feel compelled to gloss over it. “If they’re talking about it, they’re probably in a reasonably resilient space,” says Jeremy. It’s okay to share how the prospect of losing them makes you feel, rather than suppressing your emotions. “They probably have some feelings too and that’s why they’re talking about it.” If you want to address issues like end-of-life care, funerals and wills, express your openness to talking about it, in an casual way.
Try saying this: “This is a topic that might be important for us to discuss. Is that something you’re open to talking about now, or is it something we can maybe talk about tomorrow or sometime soon?”
When it comes to assisted dying, consider having a professional (like a doctor or social worker) present, to help answer any questions. For some people, talking about funeral plans can be a helpful distraction from the scary part of dying; others may not want to address such topics at all, and that’s okay too.
Scenario #5: You have a friend or colleague who’s grieving. You want to let them know you truly care and want to help but are afraid to say the wrong thing.
How to raise the topic: Sometimes, fear of ‘setting off’ someone’s distress can make us clam up around a grieving person. “Asking someone how they’re doing is usually not going to bring them undone unless they’re not doing well, and if they become emotional, they probably need someone to talk to,” says Jeremy.
Try saying this: “How are you travelling? Are you okay? It’s been a rough time for you.”
“From there, if you have an idea of something that might help [like offering to bring over a meal one night], ask them if that would be useful,” suggests Jeremy.
With a close friend, you may want to establish a ‘contract’ for how you navigate their loss in your relationship. “You might say, ‘I want to be the best friend that I can be to you in this situation, but I’m not always going to get it right, so let me know if you need more or less from me. Is it okay for me to talk about this with you when we meet? Do you want me to check in with you on significant dates, like birthdays or anniversaries?’” says Nathan.
Scenario #6: Someone in your family has died, and you have to break the sad news to your kids. You’re wondering how much to tell them, and how to help them process the loss.
How to raise the topic: “The important thing is to be factual within the child’s level of understanding and use age-appropriate language but avoid euphemisms for death like ‘gone to sleep’, which can make kids frightened to go to bed,” says Jeremy.
Try saying this: “There’s something really sad I want to talk to you about. We know Grandma has been sick for a long time. Unfortunately, the doctors couldn’t cure her cancer and last night she died.”
Pause after speaking to allow space for your child’s reaction.
“Let them know they’re allowed to ask questions, tell them when you don’t know the answers and look to find out together if it’s appropriate, and let them know it’s okay to be upset, angry or have whatever feelings they’re having,” says Jeremy. Having a ritual to acknowledge the passing of the person where your child is included is also helpful.
Getting support for grief and bereavement
These organisations can help with support, counselling and information, if you’re navigating the death of a loved one:
- Sydney Grief Counselling Services has a free webinar, An Introductory Guide to Grief, which offers strategies to cope with the physical, mental and emotional impacts of grief.
- Griefline offers free phone support, online forums and support groups.
- Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement has a comprehensive list of services that may be useful if you’re grieving.
- HealthyMinds Check-in: We've partnered with PSYCH2U to offer eligible HCF members* easier and quicker access to mental health support through our HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist.
- Calm Kid Central: Eligible members can access Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged four to 11 manage tough life situations.
If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Help protect your loved ones
Our Life Protect Insurance is designed to help you look after your family if you’re no longer able to. Life Protect will pay a lump sum benefit if you pass away or are diagnosed with a terminal illness+ to help cover the costs that come at this difficult time, like your mortgage, school fees or day-to-day living expenses.
THE 7 STAGES OF GRIEF
Loss affects us all and is one of the most traumatic life events. Here’s how understanding the 7 stages of grief can help you with the grieving process.
YOUR END-OF-LIFE CARE
Explore and document the terminal care and treatment you want to receive when the time comes.
WHO CARES FOR CARERS?
Caring for a loved one can be a financial, physical and emotional strain. It’s important to know what help is available.
CARE PLANS AND WILLS
How to plan ahead for your death, or if you become seriously ill.
* 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.
^ HCF members who have hospital or extras cover with a child aged between 4 and 11 years old can access Calm Kid Central, an online educational and support program helping kids aged 4 to 11 manage their big feelings and emotional challenges. The program provides confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours, as well as tools and resources to help you support your child.
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