Why loved ones need to know how you feel

Preparing for tragedy is not a way of life, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical ways to prepare for the unthinkable. Those close to us will be affected later if we keep our desires private, so how do we approach family conversations now that some members prefer to avoid?

Taking a leaf from professional practice is a good start. Organ donation nurses have wild conversations all the time, and formal training allows them and their medical colleagues to share vital information that confirms the family’s worst fears. Such professionals are trained to talk to shell-shocked, distraught families, but the basic tools for managing such dire situations are available to all of us.

National Organ and Tissue Education Coordinator Bernie Dwyer says it all comes down to compassion and communication.

“It really works to teach a whole range of communication techniques about exploring family issues, being comfortable in family sadness, being silent, giving families time to think and ask questions,” she says.

“We know that if families have talked about it beforehand, if they have heard what their loved ones want, then surely more families are likely to support their loved ones’ desire.”

Nursing Coordinator Donation Specialist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (DSNC) Michael Jay says the “enormity and complexity of the conversation” requires in-depth communication skills.

“In particular, assessing bereavement and loss… (and recognizing) when families are in a state of shock… because there is reason to believe that this needs to be discussed at a time when families are ready to hear it and are ready for this discussion. Jay says.

“Families are (always) very willing and comfortable talking about their loved one, and so I usually redirect the conversation back to their loved one and just spend some time talking about what kind of person they were.”

Both Dwyer and Jay repeatedly stress how easy it is for families to know in advance what their loved one wants, either because they signed up as an organ donor or expressed their desire.

In the event of a tragedy, such knowledge saves families from having to make a few rash decisions at one of the worst moments of their lives.

“While it can still be very difficult, open and respectful dialogue beforehand is preferable to a heated discussion caused by stress, fear and grief in a palliative care or emergency department,” says Tamara Cavenett, president of the Australian Psychological Society.

“The best time to talk is in a safe and comfortable place for everyone.”

It’s worth knowing that the chance of dying in a way that makes organ donation possible is the rare exception rather than the rule. It’s a tricky numbers game, so DonateLife is calling on the 13 million Australians aged 16 and over who are eligible to register as an organ donor but are not eligible to spend the one minute it takes to register.

Police Sergeant John Law lost his psychologist wife Louise to an aneurysm in 2014, when Louise’s two sons from a previous marriage, James and Alexander, were 17 and 11 years old. The couple were registered organ donors and knew what the other “was willing to give up”. “.

“As for Louise, she said everything except for her eyes,” Lowe says. “She just felt like her eyes were part of her soul.”

Knowing that Louise “didn’t want to miss a single opportunity to help someone if she could” made “all the difference” to her family, he said.

Ultimately, Louise saved six lives.

“None of those decisions were mine—they were Louise’s,” Lowe says.

“It was the last thing she could do on this planet. All I did was her voice when she couldn’t have that voice herself.”


Open communication helps families learn about each other’s desires when life is going well—here are some suggested techniques.

1. Listen to your loved ones. Paying attention to someone’s desires while they are fit and healthy provides deep comfort and guidance should the unimaginable happen.

2. Ask family members what their position is, rather than leading with your own position. People often share more or become more receptive when first asked what they think.

3. Use available support services. If the people who make their living talking like this need regular counseling and support from a psychologist, then surely grieving families need it too.

4. Accept that others feel differently, both in general and in grief. Pressure in either direction is unlikely to produce the desired result, but will almost certainly hurt others.

5. Give yourself and others the opportunity to say no. For some families or family members, “no” means certain organs will not be donated; others will reject the donation altogether.


one. Scan this QR code to visit donatelife.gov.au

2. Keep your Medicare card handy

3. Enter your name, date of birth, zip code and Medicare details on a simple form and submit

Originally published as DonateLife Week: When tragedy strikes, knowing a loved one’s wishes is a precious gift