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How To Tell People You're Dying

Preparing for Death

Having to tell family and friends that you are dying can seem the most incredible mountain to climb. You are probably still in shock and coming to terms with the news yourself.

How you tell someone that you are dying will depend on who they are and how you feel they are going to respond. Some people prefer doing it face to face whilst others choose to opt for a letter. In a letter, you can speak without fear of interruption or emotion. There are even some who broadcast the news on social media, we have all seen the posts..."I've had a blast but now, my number's up". There is no right or wrong way to impart the fact that you are dying.

Family and close friends

Most people will tell their immediate family and close friends in person. You probably already have a partner or family member who was with you when you were told. Discuss with them the best way to tell other people especially children. Sometimes it can work well if they tell people whilst you are present. Your approach will vary. You will talk to a child in an entirely different way to an adult.

Try and choose a time and location where you will not be interrupted. If you think that the recipient of the news will get very upset, it is perhaps best not to do this in a public place. However, some people find the impersonal hum of a busy location like a cafe a welcome distraction – it can add a level of normality to the conversation.

Waiting for the right moment

Waiting for the right moment in a conversation could mean you have a long wait. After all, is there ever a right moment to tell someone you are dying? It is best to be open and level with the person sitting in front of you. Making small talk only prolongs the agony. If they know you well, they may already have guessed something is wrong or noticed a change in your demeanour anyway.

A good conversation opener is to say something like, "I had a hospital appointment last week and was given some news which is not great..." Be quite factual about the information you provide and deliver it in bite-size chunks one statement at a time so they have a chance to take it in. Don't lie to soften the blow, be honest especially if you know how much time you have left. Deliver the information factually and without drama.

How will people react?

Reactions can vary and you should expect almost anything. The most common reactions are silence, shock or tears. Some people respond with disbelief particularly if you appear hale and hearty or are not particularly old. Have some tissues at the ready. Most people, like you, will need several days to take stock and fully come to terms with what you have told them. Be available for their calls or messages as you might need to repeat some of the information you have told them.

Disbelief can manifest itself strongly such as urging you to seek a second opinion. Try and be patient with this response and handle it as tactfully as possible – it comes from a place of love even if you do find it distressing.

Don't be embarrassed about crying or displaying your own emotions. It can be hard to convey this sort of news without getting upset yourself. Sometimes it can help to have someone with you who already knows and who can support you while you tell someone else.

Helping your friends and family to help you

When you give people the news that you are dying, you have the advantage of prior knowledge. A natural human response is for people to want to do something to help you. So before you tell someone, see if you can think of something constructive they can do which will allow them to offer you support.

Letting family and friends engage with the practical and emotional journey you are embarking on will make it easier for them after you have gone.

Writing a letter

Some people find it much easier to write down the information and their thoughts and feelings rather than conveying them face to face. It is possible to have your say without fear of interruption or worrying about the other person's reaction. Many sentiments can be conveyed in a letter and it is a physical momento which can be treasured forever by the recipient.

A letter acts as an opportunity to say more than just the bald facts about your terminal illness. You can express your love for that person, share precious memories and it is a chance to forgive any past acts or event. Don't be afraid to be honest about how you are feeling – if you are frightened of what lies ahead then say so. Your letter should be a real, living message. It's a great way to say things that may be too difficult face to face.

Handwriting a letter is far more personal than typing it. Add in pictures or little mementos. Write the letter as if they were sitting directly in front of you. They want to hear your voice when they read it. Try not to say anything you wouldn't say face to face. Don't trot out hackneyed phrases or clichés unless you really would say those things in real life. People want a personal connection to you, not some third party neutral account of what is going to happen. Don't be frightened to be intimate and reveal your innermost thoughts and feelings if you feel you want to.

A handwritten letter can be delivered in person and read before your death or afterwards. You could write a series of letters to your friend or family member, either to be read at the time or posthumously. Don't rely on such letters being discovered, tell someone where they are. Some people write letters for many years ahead such as 18th birthdays or their children's wedding day.

Practicalities

A letter can be a good way of logging or recording practical tasks, what will happen or how that person can help you with certain activities. This could be in a separate document added to your personal letter or sent a few days later. There are now online platforms like Bequest where you can gather important information for your loved ones and friends and leave instructions. You may feel that you want your letter to be truly personal and sentimental and hive off anything functional or practical to a different location. If you have written a series of letters then record their location on Bequest so they are not overlooked after you die.

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