What to Say to Someone Who Is Dying
Last Updated: April 24, 2019
For caregivers, figuring out how to speak to a parent, senior loved one or someone who is dying 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.
Read these four tips on what to say to someone who is approaching their end-of-life.
Saying Goodbye to a Senior Loved One
Being confronted with a parent or senior loved one’s illness brings us face to face with our own 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 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 a loved one who is dying.
First, 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.”
Marty Tousley, a grief counselor, adds, “Don’t desert the one who is dying. Let that person take the lead.”
The advice bears repeating: let your loved one take the lead when it’s time to talk about dying. “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.”
4 Things to Say to Someone Who Is Dying
When you do have a conversation with a senior 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.”
Some other points to keep in mind include:
1. Be honest and 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.”
2. Encourage loved ones to share their goals and memories.
Everyone is going to approach their mortality differently; some will find it most important to mend relationships with family or friends, 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, as well as 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.”
3. Listen and talk about how loved ones are feeling.
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.
4. Not forget to say “I love you.”
“Connecting at that level has the power to convey affection, commitment, openness and respect,” Elster says.
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: “I forgive you,” “I love you,” “Please forgive me” and “Thank you.”
Things to Avoid Saying to Someone Who Is Dying
Open conversation or not, there are also things one should generally avoid saying to someone who is dying. Elster advises, “Don’t give false assurances; they can make the patient more anxious and undermine trust. Also, don’t try to provoke the patient to 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 been through the experience. “Find someone to talk to about it,” says Tousley. “Someone you can trust, who will listen without judging you. Take good care of yourself emotionally, mentally, physically, socially and spiritually.” This might be a challenge if you are not accustomed to expressing your feelings. If that is the case, says Tousley:
“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 bereavement or grief.”
Most of all, however, be kind to yourself. Elster offers these words of advice for caregivers: “Let your tears flow freely. Pace yourself. Talk openly with people you trust. Thank the things in life that bring you joy, and as often as necessary, forgive yourself for those moments in which you’ve tripped.”
Have you received any other beneficial advice for speaking with someone who is dying? We’d like to hear your stories and tips in the comments below.
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