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Researchers Look at How to Talk About Dying

There’s nothing easy in talking about death for most people, even though it is something that will eventually happen for everyone. Haley Weiss writes in TIME Magazine about researchers who looked into how hospice workers handle the subject, since they are considered to be experts of a sort in end-of-life care. To this end, Daniel Menchik, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona who studies the use of language in different fields of medicine, spent eight months sitting in on team meetings at a hospice care facility that were also open to patients’ families. His findings are expected to be published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. Those findings reportedly underscored the importance of framing death as a process rather than an outcome when caring for patients and/or loved ones. It’s a helpful strategy that he says everyone could use when facing loss. Menchik took note of verbs that hospice workers use with family members. Some verbs assert things about the future; he called these “predictive” verbs. E.g., what “will” happen. “Imperative” verbs involve a call to action, such as what one “should” do. “Subjunctive” verbs communicate personal stances when talking about the future. What does one “think” or “feel” or “want.” Menchik observed that hospice workers minimize their use of imperative verbs, which he says tends to express someone’s control over outcomes. A higher priority in hospice is emotional management, using subjunctive verbs. An associate of Menchik noted that using more predictive and subjunctive verbs allows hospice experts to orient care around current emotional needs. “With the language that they’re using,” the associate said, “they’re there as guides, not as the authorities.”

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