Communicating with the Patient
My dad doesn’t talk about his illness. How can I talk to him about dying?

Our society generally discourages talk about death, dying and illness. For some people this kind of discussion is most difficult with family.

You can try several strategies to help your father open up and talk. It’s possible that no matter what you try your dad may be unwilling to talk. This can be hard for you, and if it is, it may help to tell him so. Unless he knows, he may not realize that talking will help you and him.

First, it’s important to acknowledge your father’s illness and even ask questions about it and how he’s doing. If you say nothing it can be awkward for both of you. It’s possible that you both want to say something, but each is afraid that the other is uncomfortable with the subject. Your father may want to protect you, which may be why he isn’t talking about things, or he simply may be uncomfortable. If you make the first move your dad may feel more at ease. By inviting him to talk, you are letting him know that you are open to talking about dying, or whatever else is on his mind. If your father still is silent, it may the way he needs to deal with his illness at this point. If you make it clear, however, that you’re willing to talk, it’s likely to be a comfort and may make it easier for him to open up when he’s ready.

If he does start talking, the best suggestion is to be attentive. Watch and listen for clues that tell you what your dad wants to talk about, what makes him uncomfortable and what’s comfortable. Often people who are dying are afraid of pain and other symptoms at the end of life. As your dad talks, some fears may come up. If this happens you may want to contact a health care provider who can help explain his illness and what to expect.

It’s okay to ask your dad if there are things he wants to talk about. He may have certain memories or experiences he wants to share. If you’re not sure whether your father’s comfortable with the direction of conversation, or if you’re not sure what he means by some comment, just ask. The first discussion is often the hardest. It should get easier as you and your father continue to talk.