What to Say to Someone Who is Dying
For caregivers, figuring out how to speak to a dying loved one can be both challenging and emotionally wrenching. Fortunately, there are things you can say that will help your loved one maintain dignity and respect during their final days.
Being confronted with a loved one’s illness or death brings us face to face with our own mortality and feelings of helplessness, as we try to figure out how to move forward in the face of the inevitable.
For a family caregiver, the difficulties can be innumerable, between coping with the logistics and details of end-of-life care while also dealing with our own grief. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we may not know what to do or say to be the greatest comfort to the person who is dying. We may not even know how to mentally prepare for conversations with a dying family member.
Reaching out to someone knowledgeable and sympathetic may be the best thing we can do to prepare ourselves during this time. Addressing our own concerns and needs can help us, in turn, be truly present for our loved one’s last days, so we can care for them with respect and dignity. Read on to find out what other valuable advice we’ve gleaned from our conversations with professional grief counselors and those who work in end-of-life care.
Preparing to Say Goodbye to a Loved One
First of all, says Brian Elster, a Chaplain with Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurse Association, “Remind yourself that this is not about you. You may feel uncomfortable, but your loved one needs you.” They may even be waiting for you to bring up the topic.
“The person who is dying usually knows that he or she is dying, and the secret for us is not to be afraid of that or to run away from it.”
“Don’t desert the one who is dying. Let that person take the lead,” advises Marty Tousley, a Grief Counselor and Moderator for Grief Healing Discussion Groups.
The advice bears repeating: let your loved one take the lead when it’s time to talk about dying — or when it isn’t a good time. “One of the most important concepts in the field of grief and loss is that people drift in and out of the awareness of dying,” says Dr. Kenneth Doka, Ph.D, Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America and Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle. “Sometimes they do talk about it, sometimes not. The dying one should control the agenda. Don’t force conversations on them.”
In fact, sometimes it is simply the presence of family members that tells a dying person, much more than words can, that we love them and are there for them. A Place for Mom reader Len Auclair, a grief counselor who works with caregivers, notes, “You share their loss, simply by being with them and not thinking of what to say next. It is not necessary. Your presence is enough. You can selectively reflect back their own words… less is more.”
Four Things to Say to Someone Who Is Dying
When you do have a conversation with your loved one, remember to keep the focus on their feelings and needs during that time. Think about what you want to say beforehand, says Elster. “Write it down if necessary so you don’t forget important points.” Some more words of wisdom to keep in mind:
1. Don’t Forget to Say “I Love You”
“Connecting at that level has power to convey openness, respect, affection and commitment,” Elster says. Marty Tousley agrees, pointing to the book The Four Things That Matter Most, by Dr. Ira Byock, professor of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. Dr. Byock writes that dying people typically want to hear (and to say) four things: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”
2. Talk About How They are Feeling (and Listen)
Listening to your loved one is the first step to understanding what they truly need most. “As a caregiver, you can ask, ‘What do I need to know about you as a person to give you the best care possible?'” says Tousley. Elster agrees. “Let patients identify and talk about the things that they consider important,” he says. Ask them what they’re thinking about, what they may need — and if they need help in a concrete way, don’t hesitate, whether they ask for help with household chores or simply your company.
3. Encourage Them to Share Memories and End-of-Life Goals
Everyone is going to approach their mortality differently; some will find it most important to mend relationships with friends or family, while others will prefer to focus on remembering accomplishments or airing old regrets. Either way, it’s important to give your loved one a chance to open up and process what they have experienced, and what is to come. “People often approach death by making sure their life had significance,” says Dr. Doka. “Have conversations about the things they’ve learned, the legacies they’ve left, the memories you have of them. Help them feel like they were important.”
4. Be Truthful, But Kind
You don’t have to avoid talking about the fact that your loved one is dying. “It is very okay to say you don’t have answers to the big questions, or that you don’t know how to respond to some expressed need,” says Elster. “Always be truthful, but don’t clobber them with the truth.”
Most of all, you’ll want to let your loved one guide the situation. Says Dr. Doka, “It’s not so much the exact words you say as it is maintaining the openness of the conversation.”
Things to Avoid Saying
Open conversation or not, there are things one should generally avoid saying to someone who is dying. Elster advises, “Don’t give false assurances; they undermine trust and can make the patient more anxious. Also, don’t try to provoke the patient to convert, make a confession, or renounce long-held beliefs or values.” Don’t force a conversation on them, either, if they aren’t ready or willing to talk, says Dr. Doka.
Overwhelming your loved one with your own grief can also be very difficult for them. Still, it isn’t necessary to bury your emotions. “Authentic emotion can be very helpful to both parties in the conversation,” Elster says.
“Often, our emotions mirror those of the person with whom we are talking. In those moments, one wounded heart reaches out to another, and they connect. That can be a beautiful experience.”
When Someone is Dying: Support for the Caregiver
Don’t forget to nurture yourself during this time, too. Caregivers who need support through the bereavement process may find it most helpful to turn to others who have experienced a similar situation. “Find someone to talk to about it,” says Marty Tousley: “someone you can trust, who will listen without judging you. Take good care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually.”
This might be a challenge if you are not accustomed to expressing your feelings. If that is the case, Tousley says, “Find at least one person who can be your lifeline: someone who’ll listen to you without judging. If a friend cannot offer such support, find a good counselor who specializes in grief or bereavement.” She suggests several places you can ask for a referral: a local hospice, a grief support group, your personal physician, a crisis information and referral service, a funeral home, a hospital or mental health clinic.
Most of all, however, be kind to yourself. Brian Elster offers words of advice and kindness for caregivers: “Talk openly with people you trust. Let your tears flow freely. Pace yourself. Give thanks for the things in life that bring you joy, and, as often as necessary, forgive yourself for those moments in which you’ve tripped.”
What is the best advice you’ve ever received for coping with end-of-life conversations? Please feel free to share with our readers in the comments below.
We Can Help! Our local advisors can help your family make a confident decision about senior living.
Incoming search terms:
- what do you say to someone who is dying