We Don't Have to Be Alone with Dying and Grief

Psychologist Lani Leary on How to Start a Conversation about Death

November 9, 2014

Lani Leary knows death intimately. As a psychotherapist and hospice counselor, she’s worked with thousands of dying people and their families, and she’s been at the bedside of more than 500 people at the moment of death. Her dedication to working with the dying and bereaved goes back to the painful experience of her own mother’s death when she was a child, when her family told her nothing about how her mother died.

What did Leary learn? We need to talk openly about death - not just with family members who are dying, but with everyone close to us, including children. While these conversations can be difficult, they can also help us confront our unspoken fears and even transform our relationships. They can also give our loved ones the rich and authentic experiences they crave at the end of their lives.

Here's Leary talking with Steve Paulson about how most people who are dying will welcome meaningful conversations about death.

Interview Highlights

On the trauma of her mother’s death when Lani was 13

There was no information on how she died or why she died. I believe they thought they were trying to protect a child. They meant well, but it wasn’t helpful. So in the absence of information, I filled in the blanks. I made up a story that she didn’t fight to live because she didn’t think her own daughter loved her. And I lived with that guilt and regret and remorse, on top of the grief, for years and years.

On her father’s death, years later

I vowed, no matter where I was, that I would drop everything if my father became ill. I was living in Virginia and my father was in Hawaii. When I got a call that he had late stage lung cancer, I closed my practice and my university class, and I flew home to be his primary care-giver, and we began talking about everything.

We did make that bucket list and we gave him the end of his life that he asked for. Had I not asked those questions, I would’ve been shooting in the dark, perhaps living out my dreams of the end of life, rather than his.


On death-bed visions

At the end of life, people have conversations with deceased loved ones who, they report, are in the room with them. I try to encourage families to validate that experience, and I can hear, ‘Ahh, someone believes me.’ And it’s not uncommon that soon afterward, they do let go and die.

If someone says, ‘Johnny’s in the room. Johnny’s here,’ I might say, ‘Who’s Johnny?’ And the woman says, ‘Oh, my husband.’ My response is, ‘Well, of course he’s here. Where else would he be?’ Whereas other people might say, ‘Oh, hush hush, it’s just the medication. You’re hallucinating.’ Why would we take that comfort away from someone?