When is the right time to talk about death

/ Nai Seow Hong (Translated by Colin Kuan)

At what age is it okay to start talking about death? Is it at the age of three, thirty or eighty? This is a question that many people often face. In fact, as long as children know how to communicate – even at the age of three when they are learning how to speak – they are aware that something unusual is happening at home; for example, death. We adults often use “sleeping” or “gone abroad to work” to hide our unease because we don’t know how to explain death to our children. However, some children realise that the deceased person is never coming back and may be afraid of sleeping or going abroad because of this. If you have religious beliefs in your family, you can describe the afterlife that you believe in. If you are irreligious, you can also discuss your views of the afterlife. Being honest to children is also a way for adults to face reality.

“Walk With Me” is a documentary film framed around Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh who passed away on 22 January. There was a scene in the film where a little girl asked the Zen master how she can not be so sad after her dog died. The venerable began his explanation with the clouds in the sky; the clouds become the rain, which becomes the water in our tea. When we drink the tea, we see the clouds. Death takes away the life of a loved one, but our relationship with the departed will accompany us in various forms. Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s inspiring words to the little girl broke the boundaries of life and death with a simple allegory.

There are five nos in discussing death – “no compulsion, no impatience, no interruptions, no refusal in listening, and no casualness”. While we may be willing to speak about death ourselves, we do not compel others to do the same. Without impatience, we allow everyone to take their time to experience reluctance and willingness to talk about the subject. When an elder or caregiver talks about death, do not interrupt or refuse to listen by saying “that’s taboo”. We do not talk about death in a casual or superficial manner because it is the last chapter of our lives, allowing ourselves and others the space and time to talk about life and death. The way the Chinese educate about death usually starts with “taboos”. For example, the avoidance displayed when sealing a coffin or moving a coffin during a funeral procession is actually a form of respect for the deceased. However, people later on misinterpreted it as bad luck, misfortune and something to be avoided. The reason people fear death is because of the realm of the unknown that lies beyond it. However, religion is a “resource” that is the best guide to the afterlife. For instance, Christianity believes in Heaven, Buddhism believes in the Western Pure Land and others. These are straightforward answers and comforting, which is the biggest function of religion in death education.

A healthy fear of death is what enables us to live well. To be able to talk about death in an appropriate way, we have to start with ourselves. Once we have put aside our own psychological barriers, we can then learn how to talk about death with our elders, our peers and our children. For example, news on current affairs or daily life, role-playing some scenarios or seeing a dead bird on the street can all be conversation topics about death. Talking about death is not only a way for family members to understand our ideal arrangements after death, but also a way to learn about the concept of death and funeral arrangements as imagined by the conversationalist (family or friends). In relation to death, Ms. Guo Hui-juan has mentioned two modes of mindfulness: “doing mode” and “being mode”. “Doing mode” is the daily awareness of the fact that death is an inevitability, while the “being mode” is a necessity to think about death only when it comes to a critical moment. We can learn to switch between these two modes at any time to remind ourselves to live in the present moment.

Each of us is an individual, with different personalities and different perceptions, so each of us naturally has a thousand different perspectives and attitudes when facing death. In the workshop, Ms. Guo Hui-juan shared the following ways of coping with death and the attitudes of people towards death:

There are four ways of coping with death:

  1. Positive acceptance of death, facing death and living in a “positive” manner.
  2. Negative acceptance of death, believing that death is an irreversible fact and despairing
  3. Avoid discussing death, thinking that if we talk about death, we will die, and if we choose not to discuss it, we can avoid it.
  4. Fear of death, extremely fearful of death, needlessly worrying.


Acceptance of death

  1. Approach-oriented, firm in religious belief, and believe that death will lead to a better place
  2. Escape-oriented, life is too difficult, and death is regarded as liberation
  3. Neutral attitude, death is a way of life, neither to be feared or to avoid, do your best to enrich your life

In conclusion, as long as you are ready, it is appropriate to talk about death at any time. What is your attitude towards death and how do you accept it?

Nirvana Care Grief Care Department

Nirvana Care – Grief Care department, cares for your grieving journey. We provide individual counselling, group support and life education awareness. Contact us at griefcare@nvasia.com.my or 010-9896954 (Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for appointment or phone and email enquiry.

Author Profile:

Nai Seow Hong, graduated from Taiwan University in Master of Thanatology and Health Counselling, major in death and life, volunteer in Academic of Silent Mentor as Pastoral Care, she is now works as a grief care officer.