13 Helpful Tips for Proper Deathbed Etiquette

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In the movie The Seventh Seal, Crusader Antonius Block is on a beach and approached by the personification of Death. They exchange words. Death then asks Block, “Are you prepared?” Block responds, “My body is afraid, but I am not.” Death approaches closer. Block says, “Wait a moment.”

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While it may not be exactly like a grim reaper asking us to play a chess match, death can seem scary even though it is a part of the cycle of nature in us and around us.

We know that death will affect everyone at some point but we may find it uncomfortable and taboo. Even with that concrete fact, it can be hard to provide support and say the right words when you are with a loved one while they are on their deathbed. 

A lot of what we say and do around death depends on how we view the subject. Below we provide a few tips on how to ease your fear and offer help during a sensitive time.

Tips on What to Say at Someone’s Deathbed

Finding the right words to say to someone who is dying can be intimidating. Fear of not knowing what to say may keep you from appreciating the last days with your loved one. When death is near, consider this the last opportunity to have an intimate conversation. Try to figure out how you view death so that you can then have a more open conversation with your loved one.

To start off, ask yourself the following questions to determine how you feel about death:

  1. Are you comfortable discussing the possibility of death when someone you love is dying?
  2. Are you able to acknowledge that death is imminent and what is happening with your loved one?
  3. Do you pretend that your loved one will get better with continued medical treatment?

How you respond and react when someone you love is dying will be guided by how you answer the above questions.

1. Let your loved one know that you have been thinking about death lately

Although this may be a new experience for you, letting your loved one know that you have been thinking about death can help open up the conversation about the end of life.

It may be awkward and uncomfortable for both of you at first, but talking about it can bring a sense of relief afterward. Consider bringing up a book you may have recently read on death and dying to make the transition into the conversation easier. 

2. Talk about your fears, hopes, and wishes

Your deathbed visits and conversations don’t always have to be about your loved one. Use this opportunity if you’d like, to talk about your own fears about death and dying, your hopes for the future, and what you wish for yourself in your new reality.

This intimate conversation with your loved one can strengthen your emotional bond, and offer up a necessary reprieve for the two of you. Your loved one may appreciate the opportunity to talk about something other than themselves.

3. Then start asking questions

The best way to find out what your loved one thinks and wants is to ask them straight up. You might pose the same questions when talking about the end of life as when you ask questions about someone starting a new job or moving to a new city.

Think about all the things you would want to know about your loved one, and start asking. Ask about their fears, their hopes, their wishes. Ask if all their affairs are in order. Ask if there is anything they would like you to do for them. 

4. Be curious about what your loved one thinks

This is a good time to ask your loved one about what they think will happen next. Be a good listener. Follow up on these questions, and don’t hesitate to ask about what they think lies ahead and about the end of life.

What do they think about dying? What goes through their head when they’re alone at night? Chances are, they might have some very sobering thoughts about dying or maybe none at all. Are they afraid? Ask them if they have any spiritual beliefs and their thoughts on life after death.

5. Do not ignore what is happening

During this time, make sure to be open with your loved one about their current status. If they are ill, talk about how it is progressing and how they feel. Allow them to guide the conversation.

Express to your loved one what they mean to you. Keep the tone of the conversation gentle and loving. Consider asking about the funeral arrangements and their last wishes. Help your loved one reach out to friends and family so that they can say goodbye.

6. Hold your loved one

Touch can be the biggest healer and the strongest connection of all. Hold your loved one’s hand, give a few more hugs, and find gentle ways to comfort them through touch.

Simply connecting with touch can help you bridge the gap if you don’t have the right words to say. You don’t have to say anything meaningful or anything at all. There is value in you just being there. As your loved one approaches the end of their life, reassure them that you will be there to offer comfort and support.

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Tips on What to Do or Bring to Someone’s Deathbed

Visits to your loved one's bedside do not always have to focus on death and illness. You can help liven up the room or place with books, games, and activities you can share together. Also consider bringing cards, flowers, and gifts to comfort the terminally ill  to leave behind for your loved one to enjoy after your visit.

Consider which activities your loved one likes to do. Do they like to play Chess? Do they like to knit? Do they like to have the latest news and events read out loud? Bringing some giddiness and cheer during your visit can make the time fly by, and give you both a time to remember.

7. Have some fun together

Have some fun during your visits. Playing games can shake up people’s moods and encourage laughter and joy. Play a board game, work on a puzzle, or challenge each other to a game of poker.

The activity doesn’t matter. What matters most is that you both are bonding and having fun together. Find out what your loved one’s favorite games or activities are, and plan ahead. You will both find yourselves looking forward to the next visit and the next. 

8. Bring spiritual texts and read to your loved one

Not everyone is spiritual or religious. Consider asking your loved one how they feel about the subject of religion or spirituality. Ask if there are any specific books you can bring to your next visit.

Together you can explore relevant passages focusing on death, dying and the afterlife. You can read from these texts to ease any fears or anxiety you both may be feeling. You can each share your own personal beliefs and discuss what you have read. 

9. Create memories through art

Creating art can provide healing as well as a physical memory or keepsake. Art has long been an outlet for self-expression, relaxation, and creativity to flow. Depending on your loved one’s physical abilities, art in the form of painting, sketching or coloring can bring some zen for everyone.

You both can discuss life’s beauty as seen through the artist’s palette. Bring a cache of colored pencils, markers, crayons and paints, sketchbooks, coloring books, and small framed canvas pieces so you can both admire your handiwork once finished.

10. Flip through old family photos 

Flipping through old family photos can be entertaining and also very nostalgic. Collect a few from friends and family, and have them write a memory or two on the back of these pictures.

Sharing these with your loved ones can evoke some strong memories, and fill in memories or add a new element to a familiar story. If they’re able and willing, you can piece together their family history, as your loved one rediscovers the joy of seeing old familiar faces.

11. Listen to music 

Music is also used not only for entertainment but for relaxation and healing. Bring a playlist of suggested music you think they might like, and then have them update it so you can learn more about their tastes.

Also, find their favorite song to relax to, as your loved one may be suffering from grief and anxiety. Together you can find the right balance of music to bring peace, joy, and relaxation while learning about each other’s preferences.

12. Share a meal

We all are familiar with bland hospital fare and the lack of choices when it comes to food. Ask your loved one’s doctor if there are any special diet restrictions to be aware of.

If you get the go-ahead, bring their favorite foods in so that you can revisit memories via taste and smell. They might be yearning for a special jar of pickles or a pastrami on rye.

Plan your next visit around a special meal that you both can share. These small gestures are what make a hospital stay more enjoyable. If your loved one is nearing the end of their life, ask them what they would like to eat during their last days, and bring it to them. 

13. Take a stroll down memory lane

Setup a voice recorder and take a stroll down memory lane with your loved one. The two of you can piece together their life story, and weave a tale as whimsical or as straightlaced as they want. Start at the beginning and work your way through the good and the bad.

With this project, you get your loved one’s voice as a treasure to listen to, as well as preserving these conversations for generations to come. Allow them to paint a picture of what their life has been like, ask about their failures, laughable moments, and successes.

Make sure to ask permission to share their story with the extended family and younger generations of the family tree.

Deathbed Etiquette Makes a Regular Visit a Memorable One

Death does not need to be the off-limits subject that it is in our society. By asking ourselves how we feel about death, we can all enjoy open and honest discussions about end-of-life planning and wishes. Having these conversations when your loved one is on their deathbed may not feel like the most ideal, but it has to start somewhere.

Express your feelings and ask questions and open up the conversation to include anything and everything. Help your loved one transition into the next phase by offering your support. In the interim, help yourself start the grief healing process.

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