What to Say to a Dying Person
When someone you care about is nearing the end of his or her life, it can be a difficult, delicate time. So many factors play into the situation, such as whether or not the diagnosis was expected, how the person feels about his or her life and what happens after death, and even your own feelings about your own mortality.
By choosing to visit your loved one at this important time, you’ve already made a huge step in showing him or her you care. Sometimes just the gift of your presence means more than you can say with words. A gentle touch – laying your hand on their hand, shoulder, or head – tells the person they are not alone in this final journey. Even when they can no longer respond, they may be able to feel your presence and be comforted.
That said, it can be helpful to be mentally prepared for your visit, and have the correct mindset going in. The following are additional guidelines to keep in mind when visiting someone who is facing the end of life.
Follow their lead.
The number one thing to remember at this moment is that this is not about you, but about your loved one. Whatever feelings you struggle with about your own mortality, you must push aside and be present in the moment of what your loved one is experiencing in his or her perspective. Go into your visit with an open mind and no expectations, as everyone deals with death in different ways.
Being a good listener is one of the best things you can do for your loved one. He or she may want to get something off their chest, may want to discuss their fears, regrets, hopes, or fond memories. They may want to talk about anything except their diagnosis. Give them chance to drive the conversation, and work hard to not let an uncomfortable silence push you to over-talk and rush away. Some people need a sounding board for all the thoughts in their mind, or a “safe place” where they can share any emotion without being judged. Do your best to be that person.
Console in appropriate ways.
You are sure to have the best intentions when visiting your loved one, but keep in mind that certain phrases or clichés are not constructive at a time like this. Avoid saying things like, “I know how you feel,” since you most likely have never been so close to death. Refrain from stating that something is “God’s will.” Allow your loved one to feel as they do, and do not force them to view their situation in a certain way at any given time. Their feelings are most likely vacillating between several emotions. If you don’t know what to say, simply remind the person that you love them or that you will be there for them.
Share your spirituality with your loved one based on what is appropriate to your relationship, and how they are expressing themselves as well. You can ask if they would like you to pray for them, and do so if they agree. Ask them if there is anyone they would like to talk to, like a pastor, spiritual counselor, or priest, but do not force them to confess to you or have a deep spiritual conversation if they do not seem ready. Hospice can often offer a counselor if your loved one would like to speak to someone, but does not have anyone particular in mind.
Be honest and open.
In these situations, it’s good to be honest with your loved one, but with extreme compassion. Again, follow their lead. Don’t avoid the reality of the situation, but don’t dwell on it. If you don’t know what to say, you can simply say, “Tell me what you are experiencing right now.” Or simply ask them what they need most from you, whether it’s helping with errands of chores, taking care of other loved ones, or simply lightening the mood by bringing a card game or movie next time you visit. Speaking to someone who has zero expectations can lift a burden from your loved one’s shoulder, allowing them to openly communicate.
According to Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician and author of Four Things That Matter Most, the following words are what a dying person most wants to hear.
“Please forgive me.” This is one of the most important ways to deal with regrets. Keep the conversation simple and apologize for your part in what happened. Whatever your loved one’s reaction, you will know that you’ve done all you could to find resolution.
“I forgive you.” Ideally, a person facing death would be willing to have this conversation, and granting this forgiveness allows you to make the most of their remaining time. If the person is not ready to address the situation or their role in it, you may simply speak it in the interior of your heart, knowing that releasing the hurt can be just as valuable for you in achieving peace after the person has passed on.
“Thank you.” Letting your loved one know that he or she has made a significant impact in your life may help them face death with more peace and dignity, with the confidence that they will not be forgotten and that their life has meant something. Discuss their legacy and your fondest or most impactful memories.
“I love you.” Say it often. If you’ve never said it, this is the time. You may be surprised at the reaction, and how it can really bring peace and satisfaction in this important time.
Finally, don’t wait too long to say goodbye.
Be sure to say the things you want to say, so that there are no regrets. Take each parting seriously, as if it might be your last chance to tell your loved one how you feel. Mean what you say and look them in the eyes, give them a physical sign of affection, and come back as often as you can. Ensure that you will have no regrets in what you were willing to do or give to help someone make the final transition in life.