What to Say to Someone Who Is Dying
Last Updated: November 12, 2019
Figuring out how to speak to a dying parent, senior loved one or patient can be both challenging and heart-wrenching. Fortunately, there are things you can say that will help your loved one maintain dignity and respect during their final days.
Many people struggle with delivering their message in person, may stumble through their words or aren’t sure what to write to someone who is dying. These tips on how to communicate your verbal or written message to someone approaching death may help.1
Saying Goodbye to a Senior Loved One
In many cases, losing a loved one is sudden and unexpected. The loss may occur as a result of an accident, heart attack or stroke. In other cases, terminal illnesses like cancer may give you no choice but to watch your family member slowly make their way toward the end.
Being confronted with a parent or senior loved one’s illness can bring you face to face with your own feelings of helplessness, as you try to figure out how to move forward in the face of the inevitable.
For a family caregiver, the difficulties can be immeasurable. You may feel as though you continually move between coping with the details of end-of-life care, such as hospice arrangements, while also dealing with our own grief. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, you 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.”
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 his or her 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 the following:
Be Honest and Kind.
You don’t have to avoid talking about cancer or 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.”
Encourage Loved Ones To Share.
Everyone approaches his or her 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.”
Address Loved One’s Feelings.
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 your loved one what he or she is thinking about and what they may need. If they need help concretely, don’t hesitate, whether your loved one asks for help with household chores or simply your company.
Don’t 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.”
What To Write To Someone Who Is Dying
To some people, the idea of addressing a letter, a card, or note to someone approaching death is absurd. For others, it makes perfect sense. There are several instances where written words may better serve the purpose. One common instance is when the sender is many miles away and may wish to disclose private thoughts, feelings, and well-wishes to the person who is ill. The disclosure might be the case if the family chose to rely on hospice care to reduce any pain or discomfort the loved one might experience.
What To Write in a Letter
Putting pen to paper allows you to think carefully through what you wish to say to your loved one. Some people selfishly use this time to seek forgiveness for past wrongs or to bring up old dirt under the guise of offering forgiveness. However, sometimes it is better to show rather than tell. Reflect on the happy times you shared with your loved one, even if this was many years ago. Recount old stories that may inspire laughter or the feeling of a life well-lived. As the experts noted above, when people are about to pass away, one of the things they cherish most is the feeling that they mattered, and that they were important to someone. They were important to you.
What To Write In A Card to Someone Who is Dying
Cards offer less of an opportunity to share private thoughts. If it accompanies a gift, someone else may have access to the card before, during or after the delivery. Keep this in mind when choosing your words for a card. There is also the added task of trying to choose something appropriate, as cards often feature messages of their own.
Examples of What to Write in a Card
- Thank you for the …
- I will never forget when we …
- You are the reason I learned to appreciate …
- I’ve been thinking of you. I remember when …
- Without you, I would have never discovered …
- I am so grateful that you taught me the importance of …
Things to Avoid Saying to Someone Who Is Dying
Open conversation or not, there are also some thoughts one should generally avoid saying to someone who is dying, and other things that need to be talked about to help ease the dying person’s mind. AARP notes that well-meaning family and friends often make late-stage cancer and other terminal illnesses even harder to weather by refusing to discuss hospice and funeral arrangements. The refusal may only cause your loved one more distress.
Elster also advises, “Don’t give false assurances; they can make the patient more anxious and undermines 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 your loved one 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. 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 a loved one’s death and the bereavement process may find it most helpful to turn to others who have been through a similar 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.” Talking 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.
1Levine, Hallie. (2018). What to say to someone who’s very sick. AARP. Retrieved from: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2018/terminal-illness-friend-advice.html
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