Being with someone who is dying can be difficult to bear, and part of the distress can be not knowing what to say to them. Below we have compiled some advice and guidance to help you understand what to say to someone who is dying in both everyday interactions and specific conversations that are necessary to have.
Follow their lead
All of us handle death and dying differently. Some people want to figure everything out, while others may want to avoid the topic altogether. There is no right or wrong way to handle a complicated matter like death, but if you let the loved one who is dying set the tone and pace, it can be easier for both of you.
Although family and friends may want to discuss important or pressing topics, the dying person may wish to keep the conversation about ordinary, everyday things. Similarly, you may want to make light of the situation, but the dying person may wish to keep conversations more serious. Joking around may occur to them as insensitive. This can be tricky to navigate and potentially frustrating for everyone involved. Therefore, try to be as patient and understanding as possible. Ultimately, it is up to the dying person to decide who they would like to talk to and what they would like to discuss.
Listen and offer support
It is natural for you to have a million questions spinning in your head as a loved one is dying. Some people may resort to continuous nervous talking to avoid silences or distract from the inevitable. Although this is understandable, it can sometimes take the focus off their loved one, and it is crucial that they too have their thoughts and feelings heard.
Dying can sometimes feel quite isolating; it can bring up a lot of feelings and emotions that can be hard to manage. So letting them know that you are there to listen helps give them some space to get things off their chest.
Listening to them can also help you understand what they want or need. Ask questions like "how are you feeling today?" and "is there anything you need?" will also help.
When possible, offer not only your love and support but also a helping hand. It is common for those who are dying to feel like they are a burden on their family and friends, so they may avoid asking for help. However, common everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning can become increasingly difficult as time passes. Therefore, offering to help with chores and little jobs can help make their life easier. Being a willing set of ears and physically helping them cope are great ways to make them feel loved and appreciated.
Don't shy away from difficult conversations
Difficult topics like funeral arrangements, distribution of assets and their estate, rehoming of pets, wills, and the like, can be daunting to have with a dying person. Yet, they are important conversations to have.
Knowing how to resolve these issues through frank conversations will help minimize potential confusion after your loved one passes. It will also ensure you know their wishes so they can be followed. And for you, it can help relieve much of the stress of planning funerals and handling after-death matters.
The topic of death itself and particularly why the individual is dying can be difficult to broach. However, this can help someone dying and their loved ones around them come to terms with their illness and demystify the topic of death. It can also be beneficial to share certain aspects of the illness with family. For example, if they are dying from cancer, family members may face the same issues down the line. Knowing some of the symptoms and warning signs may help identify the illness earlier in the future.
Although these are crucial conversations, it is important not to hyper-focus on them. Ensure you and your loved ones' questions and concerns are answered but try not to make these topics the focal point of all conversations.
Express your feelings and emotions
Dealing with a loved one dying is a challenging and emotional time. However, no two people will experience their grief the same way. It is essential to express your feelings and emotions, but try not to make the situation about you.
For example, when talking to the person who is dying, you should avoid saying things like "I know how you're feeling" or "I had cancer (for example) before as well, and it was difficult." Even if you have experienced a similar illness, you are not the one who is dying. Likewise, even if you have lost someone to the same illness, it does not mean the individual dying now will feel the same way that another person did. Although your intention may be to help relate to the person, these types of comparisons can do more harm than good.
Yes, it is important to consider the feelings of the person dying, but you cannot neglect your own feelings and emotions. It is best to focus on how you feel about this person when around them. For example, let them know that you love them, and you are going to miss them. Don't be afraid to cry or laugh.
It is common also to feel anger or uncertainty in these situations. You must allow all your emotions and express them to your loved ones while also being sensitive to their feelings. For example, if you are angry, try not to let your anger out on them. Likewise, focusing on something positive may help them feel better if they are sad. There is no right or wrong way to handle grief, but understanding you are not the only one experiencing it can.
It is okay to cry
Your emotions may overwhelm you at times, and you may cry in front of and perhaps even with your loved one. Crying shows them how much they mean to you, and it is an authentic expression of how you feel about them. So it is okay to cry. The best thing you can do is be in the moment with them. If you cry, ensure that you shift the focus back on them so they know you are there to support them.
Don't try to change, fix, or justify things
One of the facts of life is that death is an inevitable part of it. Some may find comfort in hoping for a miracle or find solace in their beliefs of the afterlife. However, focusing on these things when trying to comfort someone who is dying may come across as insensitive or inconsiderate.
Therefore, it is crucial to understand that nothing can be changed. If a loved one is dying, everyone must accept and come to terms with that. Even if there is another experimental treatment you think they should try, or if you believe their impending death is "part of God's plan," these types of comments, although often made with the best intentions, can do more harm than good.
The best course of action is to listen to the individual dying, encourage them to express themselves, and align your conversations with what they say. You do not need to have the same views, but providing a space to share freely is often helpful. It also helps avoid offending them or giving them false hope.
Enjoy the time you have left
Finally, one of the important things you can do when someone is dying is to make the best of the time you have left with them. Reminisce, go on a final vacation with them to a place they always wanted to visit, laugh, cry, watch some movies, make new memories, etc. Try to make amends, forgive, and get rid of any bad blood you may have between each other. Do whatever you can to find some time in those final moments.
It can be easy to fixate on what may be the right or wrong thing to say, but doing this can waste some of the valuable time they have left. If your intentions are good, your dying loved one will appreciate your efforts.
Sometimes it is hard to find words, so these conversation prompts can help give you ideas of what to say or how to initiate conversations.
- "How are you doing today?"
- "Is there anything I can do for you today?"
- "Is there anything you'd like to do today?"
- "What would you like to talk about?"
- "How are you feeling?"
- "I just wanted to tell you how much you mean to me."
- "You've been the most incredible person for me (or friend, husband, wife, dad, mom, etc) and I feel so lucky to have you in my life."
What to avoid saying
There are some topics that you should keep away from when talking to a loved one who is dying. Avoid:
- Discussing your religious thoughts, especially without asking first, and especially if your beliefs are not shared by your dying loved one.
- Saying anything canned or corny about death.
- Discussing your own beliefs about the reason they are sick and dying.
- Shifting the focus onto your own feelings or making the conversation about you.
- Discussing how you'd feel if you were in their shoes.
- Excessive focus on funerals, end-of-life plans, and related topics. While these conversations are necessary, they should be dealt with properly and suitably, and then you need to move on.
What to say to someone who will die soon
Toward the end of a terminal illness and when death is imminent, it may be hard to find words to say. Understand that it may be difficult for your dying loved one to communicate back to you. You can certainly bring up how much you'll miss them and how much they mean to you, but be sure that you stay focused on them. Complete any unfinished conversations. Forgive and receive forgiveness where necessary. Express your love and appreciation. And, show up for them as they live the final days of their life.
If the frequency of seeing them in their final weeks or days may be limited, ensure that every interaction is meaningful and that you express yourself leaving nothing unsaid or that you may regret leaving out later.
How to support a dying person
It is not just what you say. You actions too can make a profound difference for someone as they live their last days, weeks and months of life. Here's a guide to how to support a person who is dying.