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date: 27 May 2017

The Living, Dead, and Dying

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Death is inevitable. Every individual experiences the death of others throughout life, and eventually, faces his or her own death. However, people who live in a death-denying culture, such as the United States, tend to avoid discussing their own or others’ death. A cultural shift has been taking place in the United States, so that dying has become an increasingly medicalized process, where death is viewed as something to be stopped or delayed instead of accepted as a part of a natural life cycle. As family members are less responsible for the dying process, communication about death and dying is a sensitive topic and is often ignored or avoided. Lack of this meaningful communication can lead to stereotypes about dying persons, conflict among family members, and fear of death.

Incorporating knowledge of intergroup communication with a lifespan approach can deepen the efficacy of communication about death and dying. People’s group identities can play important roles in the conversation about death and dying. As children and adolescents, people can encounter the death of older family members (e.g., grandparents), and the communication here can be intergenerational. Due to age differences, younger adults may have a difficult time reacting to older adults’ painful disclosure of death or bereavement. During adulthood, people deal with the uncertainty of timing of death for themselves or their loved ones. The communication in this period can be intergenerational and inter-occupational, especially when there are third parties involved (e.g., medical providers or legal authorities). End of life (EOL) communication usually happens during the later lifespan, as time of death approaches, among older adults, family members, and medical providers. These conversations include advanced care planning (i.e., arrangements and plans about the dying process and after death), medical decision making, palliative care, and final talks. Even though the current theories and research are limited, some communication theories can potentially be applied in exploring this topic.