Just because we’re in a caregiving role doesn’t mean we know what to say when faced with end-of-life decisions. What is the etiquette when a loved one is dying?
It’s a truism to say that death is a natural part of life, a situation we will all face someday. True though they may be, such words may not be adequate to encompass our emotions when we are actually faced with the death of a loved one. Platitudes, while comforting, don’t offer a lot of specific guidance for caregivers on what to say or do when an aging parent is dying. How to talk to loved ones about their end-of-life wishes, how to include other family members in important decisions, and how to treat the dying person with dignity and respect—these are the key issues caregivers need to know how to address when the time comes. Knowing the right words to share difficult information or express condolences is not the only important consideration, either. In many cases, knowing what not to say is just as important.
What to Say When Someone is Dying
Communication is the key to effectively navigating end-of-life situations, from family meetings and difficult decision-making to coping with the aftermath of bereavement. Clear and direct communication is the right way to go, according to the WebMD Palliative Care Center: “Work at keeping the lines of communication open with your loved one, with his or her doctor, and with your family.”
Families—and individual family members—have different communication styles, and will react differently to the reality of death; something to be mindful of when starting a discussion. However, openness is important, says the Family Caregiver Alliance: “A successful family meeting gives everyone a chance to be heard. All feelings are appropriate and need to be expressed and acknowledged.” To minimize conflict, try to use “I” messages, such as “I need…” rather than starting a sentence with “You should…”
Sometimes a counselor or other third-party facilitator, such as a spiritual advisor, can be helpful, or even necessary, in having tough conversations and guiding you toward asking the right questions. Bear in mind that you’ll want to tailor the delivery of information differently if you are talking to a young child about a dying loved one—WebMD has a number of helpful tips for serious discussions with children.
What to Say—and What NOT to Say—to Someone Who is Dying
Yet another set of challenges arises when we need to talk directly about end-of-life wishes with the person who is dying. People don’t want to be pitied, so it’s important to approach the conversation in a way that allows your loved one dignity and affords them respect. Again, direct communication is often the best way to broach the topic: Ask for permission to have the discussion in the first place. It’s not easy to talk about death, but it’s important to clarify your loved one’s expectations while they are of sound mind and able to share their wishes. Memory loss or dementia can make the conversation very difficult, so advance planning is critical. Sometimes loved ones may show resistance the first time you approach them, so don’t be afraid to try again at another time.
When you do have a sensitive discussion with your loved one, be a good listener and let him or her set the pace of the conversation, advises the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Make sure you ask important questions about preferred treatment, your loved one’s end-of-life goals, their spiritual concerns, and where they prefer to die when the time comes. Acknowledge their choices and wishes, even if you don’t always agree. And, of course, don’t forget to show your concern and love however you’re comfortable doing so—either in words or through gestures.
Condolences: What to Say or Write When Someone Dies
When loss happens, it’s difficult to know what to say to the person who is grieving a loved one. Offering your support through being present for the bereaved person is the most important thing you can do, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Some helpful dos and don’ts:
- Acknowledge their feelings without imposing your own beliefs or judgments.
- Don’t feel obliged to offer advice or suggestions; quiet support is often all that’s needed. You might offer concrete help with chores such as cooking or childcare.
- Understand that other cultures or religions have traditions surrounding death that may be different from your own, and respect the family’s unique perspective.
- Check in on the bereaved person periodically by calling, visiting, or writing a note. If you offer your company, be accepting if they are not ready to engage yet.
- Remember that holidays and birthdays can bring renewed feelings of grief, and be sensitive to whether the bereaved person prefers company or solitude in those instances.
What’s your number-one communication tip for sensitive end-of-life discussions? Share your advice with other caregivers in the comments below.