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Handbook for Mortals : Talking With A Sick Person

The words we use to talk about death and dying make it very hard to talk about death and dying at all. If you try to plan for your death, you are urged not to "talk that way." If you are considering stopping certain treatments, you may be urged not to "give up" or "give in." If you are thinking about whether or not to have resuscitation attempted when your heart stops, you may be asked why you don't want "everything done." In our society, it is more common to hear that someone "is gone," "was lost," "did not make it," "passed away," or "expired" than that he or she "died."

From all of these phrases, it is obvious that death is to be avoided. Even talking about death may be discouraged, as if the words themselves might somehow steal life and bring death quicker. Words will not hurry death, but they can cast a different light on life.

If you are told not to "talk that way" when you are making plans or saying goodbyes, remember that you are making plans to ease your own worries. Your plans or actions help you to live well, not to die more quickly. If you decide not to use a particular treatment and others tell you not to "give up" or "give in," suggest that you are only giving up one course of action so that you can follow another one. And if someone asks if you want "everything done," remind them that you want "everything done" to treat pain, minimize suffering for you and your family, and enjoy life to its fullest. Certain high-tech interventions may not be worthwhile if they get in the way of a full life and a peaceful death.

Words To Try: For families talking with a sick person.

When you think you want to say: Try this instead:
Dad, you are going to be just fine. Dad, are there some things that worry you?
Don't talk like that! You can beat this! It must be hard to come to terms with all this.
I can't see how anyone can help. We will be there for you, always.
I just can't talk about this. I am feeling a little overwhelmed right now. Can we take this up later tonight?
What do the doctors know? You might live forever. Do you think the doctors are right? How does it seem to you?
Please don't give up. I need you here. I need you here. I will miss you terribly. But we will get through it somehow.
There has to be something more to do. Let's be sure we get the best of medical treatments, but let's be together when we have done all we can.
Don't be glum. You will get well. It must be hard. Can I just sit with you for a while.

To learn more about the book "Handbook for Mortals" click here.