Communication student tackles dying’s difficult conversations

Death is a natural part of life, but people are often uncomfortable when it comes time to discuss the idea – especially with someone who is dying.

Communication graduate student Mary Dantzler is studying ways to make it easier. As a hospice center volunteer who sits with people who are dying, she’s seen how difficult those conversations at the end of someone’s life can be. Through qualitative questionnaires and research, she hopes to pinpoint the ways that we struggle to communicate with the dying and ways to make it easier.

Tell me about your research.

My primary interest is in learning about what people are struggling with in those end-of-life conversations. Last year I did a research project on adult siblings who had experienced the loss of a parent. Research questions asked, how, if at all, did you communicate your grief to your sibling?

This is a pretty heavy topic. How did you become interested in researching these difficult conversations?

I thought about the times in my life when I struggled with communicating with someone who was dying. I wanted to take a route that would improve communication competency for people like me. I reflected back to six years ago  hen my mother died from pancreatic cancer. I remember not knowing what to say and I remember watching my siblings struggle with this as well. I remember thinking, this isn’t just me. Everyone feels awkward. No one knows what’s right or wrong or if there’s rules or will those rules will apply when the next person we know is dying.

How do you research this? I imagine it’s a sensitive topic for most people.

The adult sibling grief research was based on experiences. For this project, we set up an online qualitative questionnaire with open-ended questions. It shocked me how people poured out their hearts. We had about 75 participants pulled from around the country. Ages ranged from seniors to college-aged students.

Mary Dantzler studies end-of-life conversations.

What did you find from the surveys?

A lot of people felt comfortable talking about future planning. They didn’t have to put a great deal of emotion into things like finances or burial plans or who’s going to pack up the house. Those things seem to come easier than “Dad was an alcoholic and now he’s lying here dying as a result and we don’t want to touch that.”

A lot of times, the talk of death itself was considered taboo – the fact that this is going to end. Even though everyone knew it, they weren’t going to talk about it.

Did anything about the results surprise you?

Opinions and feelings about the parent who was dying varied according to where the sibling was in age. Older siblings tended to hold back more from younger siblings because they seemed to feel like they were taking on a parental role and protecting the younger siblings. I was surprised to discover that so many people chose to hold their grief in rather than discuss it because they did not want to upset another person. Everyone was going around in a circle being strong for each other and becoming weak as a group. It’s not a good plan.

Do you have any pointers on how to have more effective conversations?

I found this out through my own experiences, but I think it’s important to value silence when it’s appropriate. When my mother was dying, I wanted say everything right then, that I had thought I had decades to say. She seemed very distant. I remember asking the hospice nurse, does she not want me here? And she said, “Dying is such a personal experience and it’s so absorbing. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes just let her be silent.”

So where I felt I had to talk to have a relationship and say goodbye, sometimes just my presence was enough. We can deliver very strong messages with non-verbal communication. Human touch is important when we come in this world and it’s important when we leave, too. People like to have their hands massaged or held, just to know that we’re there.

What’s next in your research?

Going forward, my proposal for my thesis is going to be based on what people think should and should not be said – what is appropriate and what is not. I want to know what people are walking around thinking, regardless of whether they’ve ever lost anyone. Then we can look into how these fears are created. Is it part of our culture? Where does this stem from? Why do people think what they do? And what can we do to encourage people to look at death differently?

Why do you think this type of research is important?

I believe the conversations that we have with the dying have a profound impact on both parties. For the dying, it may be creating a peaceful transition that promotes a good death. For the living, it may affect their closure, healing, and grieving process. My primary interest is in learning about what lay people are struggling with in those conversations. I really want to find out what those needs are and somehow transfer it into a hospice educational program so that the hospice staff can help the family with this transition. I think that we can make some improvements on how those last days, those last hours, are if we can improve the communication that takes place.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science