Having to tell people that you’re dying can feel like an incredible burden, and you may worry about causing distress to those closest to you. There’s no single right way to tell someone you’re dying, and while some people prefer a face-to-face conversation, you may decide instead to write a letter.

Your approach might vary greatly, depending on who you need to inform. For example, talking to a child about death is very different compared to talking to an adult.

When it comes to informing wider social circles, some people use blogs or social media pages to talk openly with their loved ones, but when it comes to close family and friends, sitting down one-on-one is often the best way to talk about it.

How to tell people you're dying

Telling friends and family in person

Find somewhere calm and peaceful to break the news. This might be in the lounge at home, in a coffee shop or in a park sitting on a bench. Choose somewhere you feel comfortable where it’s not too noisy. It’s best if the person is sitting down. A hot beverage can be comforting and may be a welcome distraction during the conversation.

Don’t wait for the right moment

Be straightforward with them. It’s likely they’ll sense you have something to say, so don’t try to make small talk or wait for a pause in the natural flow of conversation, as this may never come. It’s ok to start the conversation by saying, ‘I wanted to talk to you about something.’ Start with the facts. Tell them what the doctors have told you, and be specific. For example, you could say, ‘The doctor said I have X months left.’ Be honest, and don’t try to pretend everything’s okay, as this will only lead to more hurt in the long run. With some people you might want to talk about your relationship with them, expressing your love. For others, it might be appropriate to just talk about the diagnosis, in a very straightforward manner.

Be ready for any kind of reaction

Don’t have too many expectations for how they will respond; tears, silence and shock are all common. They may be in disbelief at first or think you are joking, in which case talk about the illness, using specific details. Talking about it is bound to be emotional for them and you, so it’s good to have some tissues to hand. Give them time to respond. They might need a couple of days to think the news through.

Tell them how they can help

Many people feel uncomfortable around the subject of death, and struggle with what to say or do. Remove any doubt – tell them what you need from them and how best to support you through this journey. Let them ask questions and leave room in the conversation for them to speak. You may well find that involving your loved ones in the process of planning your funeral while you still can makes the process of arranging the funeral a lot easier on your loved ones after you’re gone.

How to write a letter to a loved one when you’re dying

write a letter

Sometimes it’s easier to write a letter than speak to someone face to face, and can help make sure you say exactly what you want to. Writing a letter leaves the person with something tangible; a physical artefact by which they can remember you by after you’re gone, and can read over many many times.

If you’re thinking about writing a letter to a loved one for after you’ve gone, start by noting down what you want to say. It’s an opportunity to reaffirm your love for that person and share anecdotes of cherished memories. Forgive them for any wrongdoing if you’re able to. Don’t be afraid to talk about your fears of death. Hopefully, you’ll find the letter helps you say things that are difficult to say out loud.

Make it personal. You can do this by handwriting the letter instead of typing it. You may wish to enclose a photo of the two of you. Use words and phrases you would use in ordinary conversation, so the person is able to hear your voice in their head when they read it. Avoid sentimental clichés, as this won’t express the depth of feeling. The more personal the letter, the more connected to you they will feel reading it back.

Think about practicalities. Is there any information that could help them, once you have died? Some people write instructions to their loved one, or include information that will help with arranging the funeral or executing the will after their death, such as detailing the location of important documents.

Decide when the most appropriate time to give the letter is. You may wish to give it to them in person, or save it for them to read once you have died. If you are opting for the latter, give the letter to someone you trust, such as the appointed executor of your will, a trusted friend, or with the solicitor you used to write the will, for safekeeping.

Just one, or many? Some people write several letters to a single person. This can help support them in their journey of grief, however it may stop your death from feeling real. Some parents write letters to their children for their birthday or for when they turn 18, offering life advice for their future selves.

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