Talking about death in a positive way could improve end-of-life care

Teaching people to think and talk about death in a more positive way could improve end-of-life health care, study claims

  • Researchers surveyed 1,491 people for the language they use to describe death
  • They then put them through an online course on positive death discussions
  • People who are more positive about death view it as a natural part of life

Altering the way we think about death, and teaching people to discuss it in a more positive way, could improve end-of-life health care for patients, scientists claim.

Flinders University researchers surveyed 1,491 people to determine what language they used to describe their feelings when it came to dying. 

For many people death is one of the most taboo topics, especially if someone has recently experienced loss and the words they use can show their comfort level. 

People who are not comfortable with the topic are more likely to choose emotional words such as ‘fear or scary’ whereas others will use terms like ‘inevitable or natural’. 

Encouraging people to view death as a natural part of life, could help them make better decisions as they prepare for what is inevitably to come, the researchers say.

Flinders University researchers surveyed 1,491 people to determine what language they used to describe their feelings when it came to dying. Stock image 

Adding that working with people to take a positive approach to death could help people manage their needs and expectations when it comes to supportive care. 

Study lead author Dr Lauren Miller-Lewis, of Flinders University in Australia, said the population is getting older and when our elders are terminally ill they are often cared for by health professionals in residential care settings rather than at home.

Adding that because of this situation of pushing death away ‘we can go through life without really discussing or witnessing the end of life.’

‘Tackling and changing these perspectives will help the community to plan for and manage future needs and expectations of care at end-of-life,’ she said.

Adding it will also ‘improve patient and family care, including greater preparedness for death and also help develop future health services.’

The 1,491 participants in the survey were enrolled on a six-week open online course, dubbed Dying2Learn where they were encouraged to discuss dying. 

What words participants used when discussing death before and after the course was analysed using automated sentiment analysis.

By the end of the course, participants were able to use more pleasant, calmer and in-control words to express themselves on the topic, the researchers say.

Dr Miller-Lewis said: ‘Words aren’t neutral, so understanding the emotional connotations tied to words we use could help guide palliative care conversations.’

Younger participants showed the greatest increase in positive vocabulary.

Co-author Dr Trent Lewis said learning how to openly discuss and address feelings about death can help the general public gain an acceptance of it as part of life. 

A collection of the automated sentiment or emotional analysis of words commonly used to talk about death and dying of a loved one

Differences between how participants talked about death with other people rather than their own feelings was also observed by the researchers.

When talking about someone else’s loss, participants were more likely to use words such as sad, fear, scary and loss – whereas speaking about themselves they were less emotionally negative using words like inevitable, peace and natural. 

Dr Lewis said: ‘The assumption was that others feel more negatively about death than they do themselves.

Dr Miller-Lewis added that this could impact on our willingness to start conservations about death with others. 

‘Do we avoid it because we think others will get upset if we bring it up, and does this then leave important things unsaid?’ 

The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

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