When having to face the reality that your loved one is dying, you may not know about proper deathbed etiquette and what to say to someone who’s dying. There are no manual guides you on what to do in these situations and how to best prepare for them. The best that you can do is learn from your experiences, hope someone writes a book about theirs, and do your best to say your goodbyes in a way that best honors your loved ones.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Say Your Last Goodbye In-Person
- How to Say Goodbye to a Dying Loved One If You Can’t See Each Other Face-to-Face
Learning how to say goodbye to your dying loved one is one of the biggest challenges you’ll ever face. If you’re lucky, your loved one lived a long and fulfilling life before crossing this threshold.
Sometimes, life surprises us with sudden and unexpected losses that force us to contend with death even when we're not ready.
How to Say Your Last Goodbye In-Person
You’ll likely always remember your last goodbyes. It’s never easy letting go and nothing can truly prepare you for death.
Some things you can do to help you through this difficult time are to reach out to others who have faced similar circumstances, read books on grief, and prepare yourself spiritually for the strength that you’ll be needing to carry you through. In the end, death can be a beautiful thing for your loved one who may be suffering. Not every last goodbye has to be a somber occasion.
1. Spend quality time
When someone’s dying, they may feel scared, isolated, and lonely. It’s hard to imagine what it feels like to know that you’re dying and that your final days are near. None of us know when we’re going to die. If we try and calculate our life span and account for all of the what-if scenarios, it’s enough to send us into a bout of anxiety.
Your loved one who’s dying probably feels much the same way. Taking the time to visit with them and asking them how they feel will likely make them feel better. Some things you might consider as ice breakers can be:
- Asking them about the greatest adventure of their life
- Exchanging stories of all the bad things you each had to overcome
- Talking about past loves and the one that got away
- Asking them to tell you about their greatest fears and regrets
2. Touch often
Most people who are in nursing homes, live alone, or are in hospice care will tell you that one of the things they miss the most is being touched.
Touch has a certain power to heal emotional wounds. It can comfort, relax, and offer you relief from pain. It’s the transfer of healing energy from one person to another that makes this possible. Without touch, we miss out on these benefits that modern medicine cannot replace.
3. Ask questions
If you are shy or unable to openly express your feelings, it helps you to come prepared with a list of questions each time you visit your loved one.
It may feel a bit awkward to pull out a notepad filled with 20 questions, but assure your loved one that this is the best way for you to make it through this emotionally tough time. Keeping open and honest communication is the best way for you to continue with your visits. Anything less robs you both of meaningful time together.
Sometimes we ask questions and out of habit, we talk over the person who wants to respond. When saying your last goodbyes, this is the time to be attentive and focus all of your attention on your loved one who’s dying.
This may be the last chance you get to have meaningful conversations with them. If you ask a question, be fully present when your loved one is speaking. You might learn a thing or two about who they are and what they stand for.
5. Bring books
Please don’t bring me anything to read, said no one ever who has been confined to a bed. Books have the magical power to take you out of your existence and into a world of fantasy. You may want to ask ahead what types of books they like to read, or what’s on their reading list so you can bring a few on your next visit.
Consider adding to the list books on grief, death, and dying to help your loved one understand what they’re going through.
6. Learn to forgive
Almost everyone you know has experienced one bad thing in their life. Sometimes the people whom we love the most are the ones who end up hurting us without even knowing it. Most of the time, people will say things that are on their minds without being mindful of how they say things or the words they choose.
Words have the power to hurt as much as they can heal. If your loved one who’s facing death has hurt you in any way, tell them. Give them the opportunity to acknowledge and apologize for how they made you feel.
7. Ask for forgiveness
In the same regard, if you hurt your loved one in any way, ask them to forgive you. There isn’t any time left to waste on being shy and feeling uncomfortable.
This is your last opportunity to have this conversation with your loved one. When you forgive and ask for forgiveness, it releases lingering resentment that may be keeping each of you from moving forward in peace.
8. Be present
To be fully present means focusing on the here and now without thinking of the past or worrying about the future. Talk with your loved one about things as if tomorrow doesn't matter and the past doesn’t exist. Leave all negativity, gossip, and name-calling out of your conversations.
9. Talk about death
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging your loved one is dying. It’s probably no secret to them either, so there shouldn’t be any reason to act as if it’s not happening.
Nothing can make someone feel more lonely and isolated than a visitor who skirts around the conversation of death when they know that they’re dying. Forcing idle chatter about things that are not so important may make your loved one feel ashamed about dying.
How to Say Goodbye to a Dying Loved One If You Can’t See Each Other Face-to-Face
When you can’t travel to see your loved one who’s dying, there are still meaningful ways to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s impossible for us to visit due to extenuating circumstances, lack of financial resources, or the like.
If you’re truly unable to make it to your loved one’s bedside, be honest with them as to the reasons why. If you’re embarrassed about the reason you can’t make it, say so. Don’t hide it or make excuses as it will only sound insincere.
10. Call on the phone
You can make up for not visiting by calling on the phone to offer words of comfort and encouragement.
You can request that staff set up a video chat as well. Someone at the facility or one of your loved one’s visitors most likely will have a smartphone capable of receiving video calls. Consider also sending text messages throughout the day.
11. Death quotes
When you don’t know the right words to say, try not to stress too much over it. There are plenty of online resources where you can find relevant quotes about the death of a friend that you can read to your loved one over the phone or send in a letter.
It’s okay to tell them that you aren’t sure of what to say, but that you found these lovely quotes online that best convey what you’re feeling. You should then ask for permission to read some of them.
12. Arrange a pet visit
You can opt for creating some excitement for your loved one by arranging for a hospice therapy pet visit for them. Call ahead to the facility or to their caregiver to ensure that there are no issues with a pet coming in contact with your loved one.
13. Send gifts
A way to show your loved one how much you care for them is to send them gifts that will make their remaining days more comfortable.
You can ask them directly what they would like to receive as a gift, or ask them what they want or need to make life a little bit better. Send gifts without considering the days they have left to live. It may be that your uncle Joe would like to get his hands on the latest gadgets even if he gets to use them only for a day.
14. Send prayers
Prayers are almost always welcome. Before you send out spiritual gifts, ask your loved one about their faith and religion.
Never assume that because you were raised Catholic that they remain Catholic. You don’t want to insult them by not respecting their religious or spiritual beliefs.
Post-mortem tip: If you lost your loved one too quickly to be able to see or talk to them, let us guide you through what to do when you didn't get a chance to say goodbye.
Saying Your Final Goodbyes
Your last goodbyes will certainly be tough. You may feel overwhelmed with emotion and break down every time you go to bid your loved one farewell.
It’s okay to cry and let it all out, and it’s okay to let your loved one know just how much it hurts you that they’re dying. With the best of luck, they’ll crack a joke about death to make you laugh out loud and forget that you’d been crying.