If someone you love is in palliative care or is suffering from a terminal illness, it can be hard to know exactly how to comfort them. It can be both challenging and heart-wrenching, and it can feel like you have to step beyond your comfort zone to come up with the right words. Remember, through it all, that these feelings are normal, and while there may be pressure to get everything right, it’s essential to be as authentic, honest and open as possible.
Thankfully, there is a myriad of things you can say, share or even write down words of kindness to help you and your loved one feel more at ease as they transition from this world and to the next.
Meaningful discussions to have with your loved one
When discussing the end of life with your loved one, try and focus on their specific needs. Each person needs different considerations and will be comforted by different things. Thoughtful, small gestures, such as simply holding their hand or rubbing their back, may be calming, pain-alleviating or comforting to them. For others, they may find joy and solace in things that they can touch and feel, something that could inspire memories such as photo albums or other significant mementos.
Work hard to ensure that you don’t only focus your interactions on the loss and incorporate happy, considerate memories as you spend time with your loved one. Whey they feel ready and safe to talk, we suggest using the following prompts to begin a conversation:
- Start small. Ask how they’re doing. By checking in with your loved one, you can start to understand their headspace, where they are mentally and their feelings, thoughts and concerns.
- Keep it light if you need to. Talk about their day or other topics they seem interested in.
- Ask them what they need. Be a support for your loved one, and make sure to ask them if they need anything. Remind them that you are there for them and provide them with anything particular wishes or desires.
- Provide a presence. No one should feel alone, and during this time, it could be more lonely than usual. Being in a negative, lonely headspace can create unhealthy stress and excess sadness. You must let your loved one know that you’re there for them. Even if you don’t have words, sometimes a presence can help make them feel reassured and safe in their last moments of life.
Show love profoundly and as often as possible
Sometimes all it takes to give someone a beautiful end of life is to say “I love you” to them. These words can provide them with power, hope and feelings of comfort. It can also help you make your feelings known and help you avoid any potential future regret of words left unsaid.
While all express love differently (ex. The 5 Love Languages), so your expression may be different from others. No matter if you prefer to express your love verbally or through other means such as the written word, drawings, cards or even letters, gestures such as these will reassure them that they are loved and cared for.
Express your love and care in the form of a letter
Depending on what feels right, you may choose to write a letter or share your feelings with your loved one in a tangible form, such as a card. If you need help figuring out the right things to say, consider reflecting on a special memory or happy moments that you shared with them.
No matter how long ago the moment may have happened, recounting stories that can bring joy, laughter and inspire the feeling of a life well-lived is ideal.
What to share in a letter to a dying loved one
Many end-of-life experts note that when people are approaching the end of their lives, the feeling they cherish the most is the feeling that they mattered or importance to someone or something. Share with them that they were essential to you. Highlight how they helped you or how you cherished them.
Here are some prompts for writing to them:
- I will never forget when we…
- Thank you for the…
- I loved that time that we...
- You always made me smile when you did…
- I am so grateful that I had you to show me why XXXX mattered.
- It’s because of you that I learned to appreciate…
- Without your help/thoughts/time/love, I would never have discovered…
Be authentic, honest, kind, and above all: open
The fact of life is that there is no perfect way to manage a situation, such as losing a loved one. Navigating these moments of sadness and grief is challenging but can be made easier if you remain supportive, authentic and understanding through it all.
Remember that it’s okay to:
- Be emotional and expressive. Cry, share and express as much as you can. Losing a loved one is not easy, and you both must be able to communicate with one another in the last moments of their life.
- Be silent. In some cases, the best way to share is not to share at all. Silence is okay, and so is just being in someone’s presence.
- Not have all the answers. Admitting this to yourself and your loved one can help you feel more at ease.
- Be sad, confused and lost. It can be challenging, and not understanding why you are going through this experience can be tough to parse through.
Things to not say to someone who is passing on
As much as you may want to be open, there are indeed some thoughts and discussions that should not be broached with someone who is dying.
- Avoid giving false assurances. It can make a challenging situation tougher.
- Don’t force a conversation or discussion if they are not interested in having one. Be patient and care for your loved one’s process. If they are not open or ready to talk, give them space and time to process their experience.
- Avoid forcing your beliefs or religion on your loved one, especially if they are not religious. Be mindful and considerate of your loved one’s beliefs.
Don’t forget to care for and nurture yourself as well. Self-care is vital not only for your loved one but also for you, as a caregiver or family member.
Those who support someone who is nearing the end of their life may find it helpful to seek others who have been through something similar. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and coming to terms with that early may help you manage and navigate it better. There are options for counselling or therapy that may also be positive for those who need support.
Saying goodbye to a loved one is one of the hardest things we experience in life. It will never be easy, but by staying prepared and having those tough, open conversations, you can help find peace and connection at the end of your loved one’s life.