Losing a loved one is never easy, and no one wants to think of a friend, family member, educator, or someone else who has touched their life passing away. Knowing that someone will pass away soon can be especially difficult. During this time, it’s normal to want to say so many good things and offer comfort to this person at the end of their life. Actually finding the right words, however, may seem impossible.
While there is no guidebook for comforting a dying person, the following helpful tips may make it just a little easier to say what you feel in a way that brings a sense of peace to your loved one.
What Not to Say
Despite our best efforts, we can sometimes say the wrong thing. To avoid potential conflicts and causing the other person emotional distress, do not do the following when talking to someone with a terminal illness.
- Talking about the situation on a public platform, like social media. Not everything needs to be shared on Facebook. Keep conversations about something this serious and ongoing offline, unless the other person gives you express permission to do so first.
- Saying something like “Everything will be fine” or “I know what you’re going through.” These phrases can make the other person feel like their struggles are invalidated or made inconsequential.
- Reminding the person of their impending death. For example, don’t ask them about their preferred funeral arrangements, unless they bring the topic up to you first.
Ultimately, the most important things not to do are to make this situation about you or to trivialize the other person’s feelings.
What to Say
The question remains: What should you say to someone who is dying? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, you can find the right things to say when you are empathetic and focus on the other person. Good things to say or do include the following.
- Giving offers of help. Cooking, cleaning, walking the dog… There are plenty of things big and small you can do for this person during their time of need. Asking “Is there anything I can do to help?” is fine, but this broad phrasing may mean the other person struggles to specify just what they need help with; after all, they have a lot on their mind. Be specific instead. For instance, try something like “Can I help you with Spot’s walks?” or “Do you want me to bring over some dinner?”
- Reminiscing on your favorite memories. Remembering the good times you have had with this person can be a great source of comfort to you both.
- Ensuring their spiritual care needs are met. If the person is religious or spiritual, see if there are any end-of-life rites they would like to take at this time, so they have reassurance that their spiritual affairs are in order.
- Sending cards. If meeting the other person is not possible for whatever reason, a physical card can be a wonderful way to provide someone else tangible proof that you care about them and are thinking of them. Put a simple, heartfelt phrase inside, like “Thinking of you during this difficult time.” The card doesn’t have to be ornate or full of flowery language; it just has to be sincere.
- Offering apologies for any unresolved conflicts from the past. Wanting to take care of past wrongs is common during this process. Just make sure not to emphasize wrongs on the part of the dying person—make known your apologies and actions instead.
- Not saying anything. Sometimes the best words to say are no words at all. At times, a simple hug or holding the other person’s hand—if it’s appropriate to do so—can convey everything you want. Even more, sometimes what the other person needs is just a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen. Try active listening and letting the other person guide your conversations; you may be surprised just how much the other person appreciates it.
- Asking what the person needs. What you want to give the other person may not be what they need. You aren’t a mind reader, and there is no guidebook for navigating this difficult process. Ask the other person what they need: help, company, or something else.
Remember that there is no guidebook for navigating this difficult process, and that it is normal to feel confused, angry, upset, and many other emotions all at once. What is most important, though, is that you are empathetic and giving the other person what they need.
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, also known as the Suicide Prevention Hotline. It is available 24/7 for FREE in both English and Spanish. You can call 988, chat online, or visit the 988 Lifeline website.