Feature Archive

Talk About Death

Finding the right words.

WebMD Feature

July 3, 2000 -- The conversation about death loomed, the words waiting to be spoken. Roberta, a lifelong spiritual seeker, an opera singer, and an articulate, emotionally aware woman, was dying of cancer at the age of 76. Would she like to speak with the hospice chaplain? She said yes. The chaplain, Heather Certik, arrived, but Roberta turned away.

"I had the feeling that Heather's coming over made Mother realize that maybe her time was winding down," says Michael Messer, Roberta's son, who moved to San Francisco to care for his mother before she died last fall. "I don't think she wanted to face that. She wasn't ready to go."

The conversation never happened, with anyone. "I wanted to talk to her about death, but there was always this feeling of hope that she was going to make it," says Messer.

Talking about death at the end of life is a difficult, awkward proposition for both the dying person and for family members. Each may have different reasons for wanting to stay silent or to talk. Some family members say nothing, out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Or the dying person says nothing because of a superstitious belief that to acknowledge death is to hasten it. And family members often want to shield their grief from the dying person, while the dying person similarly wants to protect family members.