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Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension & Caregiver to her son Will.

In life the issues of money, politics, sex and death are often avoided because they are too sensitive and personal.  So, it is understandable why death isn’t talked about when cancer upsets the life of a family.

As a mother of a cancer victim, my family is like everyone else’s– we avoided talking about death, especially when my son was first diagnosed. Each family member kept their death thoughts to themselves not wanting to upset him or each other. So, the reality was all of us had thoughts and fears about death. There was this huge elephant in the room that we all skirted around instead of addressing.

When death was brought up someone would silence the conversation because of fear. The fear was that if we talked about death it would happen. None of us could imagine a life without my son. We didn’t want to think about what the journey to death would entail. Would he be in pain? Would he suffer? Would it be a long struggle with lots of ups and downs?

Since my thoughts and fears were the same as other family members it would probably be good for us to all talk about it openly. Easier said than done!

I know from other life experiences and situations the value of communicating and having discussions with those affected by the circumstances facing the family. Even after a career in gerontology and health, I now find myself having to take my own advice that I pushed on my students and clients – open communication.

Communication Strategies

It isn’t easy to talk about death, but here are a few ideas that may help you address the topic.

  • Wait until the cancer victim brings up the subject of death and use it as an opportunity to discuss their feelings associated with dying, their service, their wishes, etc.
  • Use the experience of others as examples of what you don’t want to have happen to your family. Examples could be the family having no idea of the individual’s wishes, what to do with their belongings, family members fighting over what should be done as there isn’t agreement on what the individual wanted, etc.
  • Use hospital or cancer organization’s staff. They are trained to help families with difficult conversations and often have educational materials on how to fill out an advance directive, funeral planning, etc. They might be available to facilitate a family member on end of life options or other difficult issues.
  • Bring in a hospice organization to help families understand the death process and what to expect. They can also help families say their good byes so there aren’t regrets once their family member is gone.

Even though we know it is helpful to talk about the elephant in the room, sometimes it best to wait until the cancer victim and family members are ready for the conversation. An alternative would be to have the conversation in bits and pieces. Recognizing and being aware of the need to have a conversation about death is the first step towards making the elephant in the room visible to everyone.