What to Say to Someone With Family in Hospice

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

When you have a friend or know someone with family in hospice, it can be challenging to know what to say. Understanding what hospice is and how it works can help you be there for someone with family in hospice. 

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In most cases, someone chooses hospice because they desire comfort care over treatment for a terminal condition. Hospice doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will die tomorrow or even next week or next year. Many people do well enough on hospice to continue to have quality moments and time with family and friends.

As you prepare to offer your support, learn as much as you can about the family member in hospice. Ask questions about their diagnosis and prognosis. Find out what their level of functioning is and what the living situation is like. Words of comfort have much more meaning if they come from a place of genuine understanding. 

Appropriate Message to Say to Someone With Family in Hospice

One of the main reasons people avoid saying something to someone with family in hospice is because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing. If you speak from the heart with intention and purpose, you are unlikely to go wrong. We have some suggestions on what to say, but you know the person best and can choose what resonates with you and is appropriate for the situation.

I’m so sorry you and your family are going through this

It is important to acknowledge that this may be one of the most difficult things the family has gone through together. Saying you are sorry can feel like a bit of a cliche, but when it comes from the heart, it will sound and be authentic.  You are acknowledging that someone is dying.

Tell me how you’re doing

For someone with family in hospice, there are likely to be complex and even conflicting emotions. There is grief, relief, unresolved conflicts, and stress. Offering someone the opportunity to express those feelings is a gift. If they don’t want to talk, don’t press it; just let them know you are available if and when the time comes.

How is your family member doing? 

When someone is dying, the process can be fast or drawn out and take time. By asking this question, you give the person a chance to process their feelings and talk about the mystery of dying. Knowing what the person on hospice is going through will also give you an idea of how close they may be to death. If the end seems imminent, you may want to stay close and available. 

I am available to help and support you

Hospice care isn’t 24-hour care, and there could be many care tasks that the family member needs each day. Family or private caregivers usually fill in the gaps the best they can, but your help is likely to be appreciated. Sometimes there are simple things like doing the laundry, picking up meals or shopping for groceries, arranging for home maintenance tasks, or doing them yourself. You probably can’t go wrong by delivering some home-cooked meals to the family.

What can we do together to give you some relief?

Have some ideas in mind because the person may not be able to identify what might help. Suggest a walk, a meal out, a spa treatment, or an event that doesn’t take much time out of the day. A brief respite will go a long way towards easing the stress of someone with family in hospice. 

What NOT to Say to Someone With Family in Hospice

There are some things not to say to someone with family in hospice. If you mistakenly say one of these things, don’t fret too much about it. Regroup and focus on the loving and supportive things you should be saying. 

Why has your loved one given up?

When someone chooses hospice care, they have given up life-prolonging or curative treatments, but not the right to live with the comfort they deserve. You may not have all of the information about the process or prognosis. For some people, hospice is a way of moving away from fruitless interventions that are time-consuming and exhausting. Try not to pass judgment on what has to be a tough decision. Hospice is a transition to a different kind of care. 

What to say instead: This must have been very hard for you and your family to decide. I have heard very good things about how comforting hospice can be. 

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It’s going to be OK

This statement sounds like the family member will recover or that the journey will be pleasant. Most people on hospice don’t recover and have no expectation of recovery. And the process can be extremely unpleasant and challenging to deal with. Rather than making assumptions about how people will feel, acknowledge that this is a painful journey, but one that has gifts, as well.

What to say instead: I am so glad your family member has the care, comfort, and pain relief they want and need.

Your family member will go to a better place

It is true that if someone is suffering, they may welcome relief from that. But meanwhile, the person on hospice or the family member of the person on hospice may not have a better place in mind. Not everyone believes in an afterlife, and there could be legitimate fears about the unknown. It is better not to make assumptions about someone’s belief systems.

What to say instead: I hope your family member finds peace with their decision.

Other Ways You Can Support a Loved One With Family in Hospice

There are many different ways you can support someone with family in hospice, especially if you cannot be where the person is. And you may not be emotionally close enough with someone to feel comfortable saying some of the things we have mentioned. Try not to let geographical or personal distance interfere with your offer of support. There are other ways to show you care. 

Ask if it is appropriate to visit

If the person’s family member is someone you are close to, ask if it is OK for you to visit them. Depending on the family member’s condition, it might be appreciated, but expect that if someone is dying, visits could be restricted to immediate family only. Try and accept this decision, even if it means not being able to say goodbye.

Call them

Calling someone can seem more sincere than a text. Even if the person doesn’t answer, leave a heartfelt message of support and love. Invite them to call back if they would like to talk.

Text

For some people texting is their preferred method of communication. If so, feel free to text and express concern or offer support. Invite the person to meet in person when convenient for them. 

Send an email

At first, this might seem impersonal, but some people feel more comfortable writing than speaking. Reviewing online etiquette can help you hone your message to ensure that you sound authentic. Offer to help and suggest getting together if it seems appropriate.

Write a card

Writing a card these days can seem old fashioned but in most cases is very appreciated. You can keep it simple by expressing your concern and care. Offer a follow-up phone call or visit.

Send a gift

Before deciding upon a gift, make sure you talk with the person whose family member is in hospice. You want to choose an appropriate gift. Some suggestions are a lap blanket, a digital photo album, sounds of nature CD, or anything else that someone with family in hospice recommends. 

Offer respite

Sometimes the family needs a break. Offer to sit with the person on hospice and attend to their needs if they have any. Ask specific questions on how you should respond if the person requires personal care.

Put together a care package 

A simple care package of lotions, aromatherapy, CDs, a plant, or gift certificates can be a great way to show that you care about what the person is going through. A care package doesn’t need to be elaborate. You could also include a card with a message of support.

Be appropriately positive

Sometimes people need others to be positive and talk about other things going on in the world. Even a little humor can go a long way towards bringing some normalcy into an emotionally exhausting situation. Bring some lightness to the situation if and when it seems appropriate.

What to Say to Someone With Family in Hospice

When someone you care about is going through an emotional struggle of any kind, it can be challenging to know what to say. It is human nature to avoid emotions that are uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Hospice, in particular, is difficult because it deals with death and dying. Having the courage to face your own fears and feelings will help you know what to say to someone with family in hospice. 

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