Knowing how to comfort a dying loved one is challenging and heart-wrenching. Whether you feel pressure to come up with the right words, or you’re not sure where to begin, your feelings are normal. Fortunately, there are things you can say or write to help you and your loved one feel more at peace.
When talking to your loved one, focus on their needs. Everyone is comforted by different things. Small gestures, such as holding their hand or rubbing their back may feel relaxing or comforting to some. Others may find solace in tangible items, such as photo albums or mementos.
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“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 Kenneth Doka, a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, and professor emeritus 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.”
When your loved one feels ready to talk, the following suggestions can be comforting ways to begin a conversation:
Sometimes all it takes is three words to give someone the greatest feeling of comfort. During these uncertain times, don’t forget to make your feelings known.
We all express love differently, so whether you express it best verbally or through drawings, cards, or letters, simply let them know they’re loved and cared for.
Dying people typically want to hear (and say) four things, writes Dr. Ira Byock, professor of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in his book “The Four Things That Matter Most”:
If any of these seem fitting — whether you need to make peace, forgive, love, or simply thank them for anything they’ve done — remain open to different conversations.
Sometimes it’s better to show rather than tell. Reflect on the happy times you shared with your loved one, even if it was many years ago. Recount old stories that may inspire laughter or the feeling of a life well-lived.
“People often approach death by making sure their life had significance,” says 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.”
As experts like Doka note, when people are about to die, one of the things they cherish most is the feeling that they mattered, and that they were important to someone… that they were important to you. Here are some examples of how to begin:
Everyone approaches their mortality differently. Some will find it important to mend relationships with family or friends, while others will prefer to focus on finding ways to remember accomplishments or airing out old regrets.
Either way, it’s important to give your loved one a chance to open up and process what they’ve experienced, as well as what’s to come. Now can be the best time to talk about memories, share stories, or discuss lessons learned.
Here are several questions to ask your loved one before they die:
There’s no perfect or easy way to navigate these moments or conversations. Above all, do your best to remain authentic, supportive, and understanding. When talking to your loved one, just remember that it’s OK to:
Open conversation or not, there are some thoughts one should generally avoid saying to someone who is dying.
In many cases, a loved one dies suddenly due to an accident, heart attack, or other event. Sadly, there is little or no time to prepare or say goodbye. But with terminal illnesses like cancer, you can talk about end-of-life issues over months or even years. Yet, because we often don’t know what to say, we may miss out on opportunities to connect deeply with our dying loved one and have conversations we’ll remember and appreciate for years or even decades after they’re gone.
In addition to having meaningful conversations, it’s also important to have your loved one’s affairs in order, according to Brian Carpenter, psychological and brain sciences professor at Washington University in St. Louis. In an interview for the American Psychological Association he suggested asking the three following questions to help eliminate end-of-life stress regarding:
As difficult as it can be to have these discussions, it’ll make it easier to move forward so that you’re able to focus on the present with your loved one.
Don’t forget to nurture yourself during this time, too. Caregivers or family members 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. Grief counseling or therapy can also be positive avenues to pursue when you need professional advice or someone to talk to.
Saying goodbye to your loved one will never be easy. However, staying prepared, asking questions, and having open conversations can help you both find a sense of peace and much-needed comfort in the end.
Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.