How to Talk About Death and Saying Goodbye to Loved Ones

Hands holding in sky

I can still recall my husband’s emotional breakdown when he received the call that his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My father-in-law was given only six months to live, and the doctor was almost spot-on with that prediction.

For mesothelioma patients, the prognosis is almost equally grim. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is 12 to 21 months.

My husband’s parents rejected the news that time was short.

“We are going to fight it,” they declared vehemently.

The family jumped on board and the notion of dying was never mentioned again.

We closed our eyes to my father-in-law’s extreme loss of weight and appetite. When he became bedridden, any dire thoughts that may have come to anyone’s mind were pushed away and never to be uttered aloud. It was almost as if we believed that speaking them would cause them to occur.

About two weeks before he passed, the oncologist finally conceded to defeat and said he could do no more.

As a realist and in-law — and someone not as emotionally involved — I figured now would be the time to switch gears and start preparing for the inevitable loss.

Weren’t there things that should be said? No.

My mother-in-law, who had previously rejected any alternative therapy, was suddenly ready to travel to Texas with her husband and seek treatment at an acclaimed alternative cancer center.

Unfortunately, they abandoned those plans when it became clear it was simply too late. He was dying.

He died about two weeks later.

When Goodbyes Aren’t Spoken

It stunned me when my mother-in-law later expressed sadness about never saying goodbye to her husband.

As a couple, they never had faced the possibility or the reality that he was dying, despite the doctor’s clear diagnosis and his steady decline in his health afterward.

Because of their inability to face reality, neither spoke the tender words one would say to a loved one as death approaches.

Don’t misunderstand me. I agree wholeheartedly with fighting the disease. I would overturn every stone to find a cure for a loved one who is terminally ill.

After all, medical advances surface every day, and people sometimes surprise doctors, outlive life expectancy predictions and beat the odds.

But as I said, I’m a realist.

Facing death and speaking about its imminent possibility will not bring it sooner.

Although people react differently to the same disease and medications, doctors base their life expectancy predictions on solid case studies, probabilities and the person’s health.

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Acceptance Opens the Door to Discussion

It’s important to remember that death is an inevitable part of living.

Most of us don’t choose when and how to die. It just happens. Sometimes it happens earlier, more tragically or unnecessarily as in the case of mesothelioma.

Isn’t there some blessing in knowing ahead of time so we can tell those whom we love how much they mean to us?

My mother-in-law surprised me again when she knew she was dying but never said her goodbyes or expressed her love to her children. She told my husband, but it ended there. Neither said anything more.

It’s almost as if it’s taboo in our culture to talk plainly about death to a terminally ill loved one.

Tips for Starting a Conversation About Death

Here are some ways to start a conversation without sounding so gloomy:

  • “The doctor said [you or I] won’t ever get well. If that’s the case there are some things I want to say…”
  • We never talk much about how we feel, but with the possibility that we could be separated, I need to express a few things…”
  • “I am praying and believing that [you or I] will get better, but in case it doesn’t go that way, I want to talk about what we mean to each other…”
  • “I’m never going to stop fighting for life, but in the midst of these tough times, I need to tell you what you mean to me…”

Consider these other things you can do:

  • Take the opportunity to share photos and memories and rejoice over the life you had together up to this time.
  • If you are a terminally ill parent, spend time alone with each child expressing your love for him or her. Share memories from their childhood, and tell them about their strengths and what makes them special. Bestow a blessing on them for their future. Give them words to carry them through when they can no longer come to you for wisdom, guidance and advice.
  • If saying these things is awkward for you, write them down or ask a trusted friend to write them while you dictate. Then, either read the letter to your loved ones or hand it to them.
  • Make a video or voice recording with your thoughts so your family can watch it after you’re gone.

It’s understandable that we don’t want to say goodbye. We don’t want to acknowledge the possibility of permanent separation from someone we love.

That feeling reminds me of “In Acceptance Lieth Peace,” a poem written by 19th century missionary Amy Carmichael, who spent her last years of life bedridden in India:

He said, ‘I will accept the breaking sorrow

Which God tomorrow Will to His son explain.’

Then did the turmoil deep within him cease.

Not vain the word, not vain;

For in Acceptance lieth peace.

Be hopeful, be positive and fight, but accept that it could be the end. And please, say what needs to be said to those you love and cherish.

For those left behind, your words will be a comfort and balm that will carry them through the long and lonely grieving process.


Beth Swantek has been writing professionally for 30 years. She is a former news reporter and anchor for a CBS affiliate in Michigan and often reported breaking medical and political news. Currently, she teaches media writing and video production at Lawrence Technological University in the Detroit area, as well as working as a freelance writer and producer.

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