3 Tips for Educators to Support PSWs to Talk Comfortably About Dying and Death

3 Tips for Educators to Support PSWs to Talk Comfortably About Dying and Death

3 Tips for Educators to Start PSWs Talking Comfortably About Dying and Death

Personal Support Workers (PSWs)1 are the caregivers with the most contact time with the person and family – and are informally acknowledged as “the eyes and ears of the health care team.” In this role, PSWs are most likely to be asked to talk with family about their loved one’s dying and death. When PSWs are not comfortable talking about dying and death, the conversations can be awkward and difficult for the family.

This article shares ways that educators can help PSWs become comfortable hearing about and talking about dying and death with family. Equally important is teaching PSWs the appropriate terms and phrasing to use when discussing dying and death. We provide some fun learning activities here to help students to know which terms to use, and which terms to avoid. We hope these help you and the students in the classroom!

Encourage Discussion with Popular Media

Most students love entertainment – movies, videos on Youtube and best-selling books. As an educator, you can leverage the entertainment aspect of popular media to help students become familiar with the ways people refer to death and dying. For example, consider leading a discussion about how dying is presented in a current novel or blockbuster movie. Ask students to identify the ways dying and death are referred to in the movie or book. Or you could ask students to collect the terms and phrases used in the media and add them to a flip chart page. For each of the terms or sentences used in the media, you could identify phrasing that a PSW or other healthcare provider might use that would be appropriate for a healthcare setting. And when euphemisms are used, you might challenge students to find as many alternate meanings as possible, to emphasize why euphemisms can be misleading.

Invite students to attend the Webinar titled, How PSWs can talk about death/dying without talking about death/dying

Dr. Hsien Seow and Dr. Sammy Winemaker started the Waiting Room Revolution podcast channel and upcoming book to support patients and families when facing serious illness. In their podcasts, they share the advice of health care providers, patients, and families about how to have a better illness experience. Through it all, they have distilled the wisdom into skills that anyone can use along the journey.

In our next webinar, How PSWs Can Talk About Death/Dying Without Talking About Death/Dying, Dr. Seow and Dr. Winemaker will share the 7 skills and how they can be used by health care providers like PSWs and other front-line home care providers!

How PSWs Can Talk About Dying and Death Without Talking About Dying and Death
Click the webinar image to learn more.

Lesson Plan: Create Conversations with Care Planning Cookies

Sharing food or treats is another creative way to get PSWs talking easily about dying and death. One treat to consider using are “Care Planning Cookies.” These are cookies (shaped as fortune cookies) with questions and stimulating conversation stems related to dying and death inserted inside. These cookies are a novel way to introduce people in a gentle way to talk about dying and death. In the classroom, they can be used in a multitude of ways. For example:

Reflective Writing: Students can write their responses to the care planning cookie question to explore their own needs. Asking students to write their responses using the appropriate language will give them practice with the language and build familiarity with appropriate terms and phrasing related to dying and death. Follow up with students in a debrief to ask about their experiences. For example, you might ask:

  • What was challenging about their writing related to dying and death?
  • Describe how it felt to use the appropriate language.
  • Did they encounter any barriers to using the appropriate language in their writing?
talking about death and dying
Care planning cookies help people to talk about dying and death

Share cookies with family or friends: Students could take cookies home for the holidays to open discussions with family members. I remember one student who said,

“I’m going to take these and give them to my grandmother, and she can give them out at the dinner table because the family can’t fight with her about it but they can get upset with me.”

PSWs will be able to hear from family and friends, firsthand, the many ways that people refer to dying and death. Ideally being with family or friends provides a safe environment for students to talk about dying and death, in response to the care planning cookies. Talking about death and dying in a safe environment can help a student to become more comfortable with talking about dying and death in their classroom and workplace.

As well, hearing the discussions, reflections and interactions with family and friends will broaden the student’s understanding of the ways that people refer to dying and death. As they become more familiar with questions from different perspectives, they may be able to better understand why a family member might be asking a specific question. The hope also is that they become more comfortable talking about dying, using language that is clear and non-ambiguous.  

Do you have other ways to help PSWs to become familiar with the language of dying and death?

Share your ideas in the comments section, please!


  1. Although I refer in these articles only to “Personal Support Workers”, know that I use this term as an umbrella for individuals working in the same role as PSWs but under a different job title. For example, your job title may be Health Care Worker (HCW), Health Care Assistant (HCA), Continuing Care Aid (CCA), Nurse’s Aide (NA), or Continuing Care Worker (CCW), as well as other job titles.

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