No one wants to think about the death of someone they’re close to, but leaving important things unsaid can make life much harder for everyone in the long run.

Maybe your mum or dad has tried to talk to you about their dying wishes but you haven’t known how to respond. Or perhaps you think they should be talking about their preferences for care or decision making at end of life, but they seem reluctant to.

If you’re struggling to talk to an older friend or relative about their death or the death of someone you know, here are a few things you can try.

Don’t avoid the subject

Saying nothing is rarely the answer. Make sure you have the conversation or you could end up in a situation where your parent can’t make a decision for themselves but you’re unsure of what they would have done. 

If your parent was unable to communicate, would you know what treatment they would or wouldn’t want at the end of their life? Do you know what music they would want at their funeral? 

There will always be reasons not to talk about this, but being sure that you know their wishes can give you both great peace of mind.

…But be sensitive

Of course it can be upsetting to talk about your own death or the death of someone you love. 

Think about how you’re going to introduce the conversation. You might want to prepare them in advance by saying something like ‘I realised that if you became ill I wouldn’t know what you wanted about…. Can we talk about that? When would be a good time?’ 

Let them feel in control of communicating their wishes and don’t push them towards a particular decision. 

One way of introducing a conversation could be to use triggers – for example, talk about a leaflet on the subject, a TV plotline you’ve both watched, a newspaper article or an item on the news.

Make a list

Write down everything you need to discuss. There might be a lot to cover and it can be difficult to remember when you’re discussing an emotional subject. 

Our guide Planning for the end of life has a useful checklist. You could also look for forms and templates to help you, like our downloadable funeral planner or Compassion in Dying’s My Decisions tool, which can help you think through decisions about future treatments or care.

Make sure they know their options

It may be that your friend or relative isn’t aware of the practical things they can do to plan for their death and the end of their life. 

You’ve probably heard of lasting power of attorney, but did you know there are two types? One allows a trusted person to help you make decisions about financial matters, or make them on your behalf if you can’t; the other covers decisions about health, care and welfare. One type won’t cover all decisions. 

And have they heard of an advance statement? This document lets someone record their preferences for how they’d want to be cared for. It can include things like where they would want to live at the end of their life, and how they like to spend their time, not just their preferences for medical treatment.

Remember it’s never too early to start planning

End-of-life planning isn’t just for your parents. Some people have told us that arranging things after a parent’s death made them realise how important it is to plan for their death, perhaps for the sake of their own children.

Perhaps you could agree to make your plans together. It might make it easier to discuss if you’re doing it as a joint activity.

Have you made a will, planned your funeral, and documented your wishes for your future treatment and care?