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It’s time to talk
Discussing the most sensitive issue

Listen with your heart

You may feel uncomfortable talking to someone who has a life-limiting illness, worried that you’ll say the wrong thing. Don’t be. Just keep the following things in mind:

  • Be a good listener. Truly listen to what your loved one or friend is saying and how he or she is saying it.
  • Don’t worry about silence. It can be comforting. Talking just to talk or because you’re nervous is far more awkward.
  • Maintain eye contact and don’t be afraid to smile or be affectionate.
  • Never say “I know how you feel.”
  • Don’t give advice. Instead, listen and ask questions.
  • Lighten things up where appropriate. Talking about an interesting news story or describing something funny your son did can be a welcome diversion.
  • Be honest if it’s just too emotional for you to see your friend or loved one. Explain that when you can better maintain your composure, you’ll come and visit.

Most of us don’t like to think about death, much less talk about it. But if you’re facing a life-limiting illness, you need someone to talk candidly with about death. If you’re having trouble broaching the subject, consider these suggestions:

  • Have a talk with yourself. As odd as that may sound, you need to sort out how you feel about your own death first. What are you afraid of? Do you fear pain or being on too much medication to know what’s going on? Are you scared that you’ll be alone? Thinking about such questions can make discussing your feelings easier.
  • Find a support group. A group of people facing the same problems will give you a safe place to talk about your hopes and fears without judgment. They can also help you sort out important end-of-life decisions like where you want to spend your remaining time—at home, in a hospital or a nursing facility—and whether you’ll want any life-saving measures, such as a feeding tube.
  • Make out an advance directive. Ask your doctor for advice about an advance directive (a document that spells out exactly what care you wish to receive) so there’s no confusion.
  • Find a way to talk about it with family members. Not everyone will be comfortable talking about the end of your life. You may want to use a story or a discussion about a past family event and a future event you may not be around for as a segue, or share your personal concerns, values and spiritual beliefs. Discuss your attitude toward death and what gives your life the most meaning, and how any religious beliefs fit in.
  • Share end-of-life decisions with your loved ones ASAP. Make sure they understand your wishes—such as a desire to stop treatment if it’s no longer helping—before they have to decide for you. This will decrease anxiety and confusion during an already stressful time.

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