You may find it hard to find the right thing to say when a loved one or friend is facing death. The truth is there is no right thing to say, but there are different things you can say.
Is your friend or family member is dying in hospice or at the hospital? This may change what you say to your loved one. You might also need to change up your approach, depending on whether your loved one is still processing his or her death.
Death should be talked about — not avoided. It's not always comfortable at first, but talking to your loved ones about death is important.
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Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Talk to Someone Who’s Dying of Cancer
- What to Say to Someone Who’s Dying in Hospice
- How to Comfort Someone Who’s Afraid of Dying
The most impactful thing you can do when someone is dying is to practice active listening. When words fail, this is the best way to be there for a family member or friend. Despite your best efforts, you still might struggle to find the words to help comfort a family member or friend who is dying.
Here are some circumstances where you might need guidance.
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How to Talk to Someone Who’s Dying of Cancer
If your friend or family member has a terminal cancer diagnosis, this can be a heavy reality. Your loved one might still be trying to come to terms with his or her impending death. Not everyone who is dying of cancer will embrace or accept death. Some people have a hard time accepting a terminal diagnosis — don’t assume your loved one has come to terms with it yet. Instead, it’s possible to meet people where they are in their process and offer compassion and love.
Here are some suggestions for how to talk with a loved one or friend who is dying of terminal cancer.
Talk less, listen more
Talking to someone who is dying can feel uncomfortable at times. You may be in shock or have a million questions running through your head. Instead of listening to your loved one who is dying, you may find that it feels easier for you to do all the talking.
Truth is, most nervous talking isn't productive because it removes you from the present moment. People who are dying of cancer appreciate it when their loved ones listen to them. They usually want to feel and know that they matter and that they are being heard.
If you are spiritual or religious, you can say a prayer before your loved one’s room and make it a point to be an active listener. Meet them in silence and let your loved one guide the conversation.
It’s OK to not know what to say
It can be easy to fill the silence with meaningless words when you don't know what to say. Allow yourself to be okay with not coming up with the perfect words. This doesn't mean that you care less.
It shows that you are human and your loved one will appreciate that you’re being real. The words will come when they need to — don't try to force them. If you're struggling to find the right words to say, consider offering comfort in the form of a cozy throw blanket or your loved one's favorite snacks on your next visit.
Don’t try to fix or correct the situation
It's human nature to want to correct or fix things that bring us sorrow and sadness. Your loved one's terminal diagnosis might trigger this response.
This is a normal feeling and it is a testament to how much you love and care about your loved one. When you talk to your loved one, try to avoid this in conversation. Let go of an agenda or the need to fix the situation and you’ll free yourself up to be more present for your dying friend or relative.
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It's easy to use labels like "dying person" and "healthy person" when a loved one is near the end. You might find yourself avoiding things you would say or trying not to laugh in his or her presence.
But your loved one is still alive and deserves to experience joy and laughter — the dying process doesn't have to be somber. You can bring light and laughter to your conversations and carry on as you did before.
Share your final wishes, just in case.
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What to Say to Someone Who’s Dying in Hospice
You might be struggling with what to say to a loved one who enters hospice. When a loved one enters hospice, he or she could live a few days or months. If your loved one is no longer responsive, remember that he or she can still hear when you speak. Be as intentional as possible with your words. Here are some suggestions for what to say to someone who’s in hospice:
"I am here for you."
Let your loved one know you are there for support, however, it’s needed. Show up, listen and invite your loved one to talk about death as little or as much as he or she wants to.
“It’s okay to feel scared.”
Your loved one may feel scared or sad about being in hospice and that's common. Let your loved one know that it's okay to be scared — all feelings are valid. With compassion and an open heart, invite your relative or friend to share his or her fears about death. Remember, you’re there to listen and it's not your job to fix the situation.
"I love you and I’ll miss you."
If your loved one is in hospice, you may not know how much time you have together. It's important to leave nothing unsaid. Let your loved one know how much you appreciate, love, and care for them.
It is comforting and validating for a dying person to know the impact he or she had on this life. Express your love and allow yourself to be vulnerable with your loved one. Cherish this time and be intentional with your words and actions.
“My life is better for having known you.”
Why save the words for a eulogy or funeral? This is the prime time to share the impact your loved one had on your life. Tell your loved one in person. Share your favorite memories and what he or she means to you and why.
Let yourself express your emotions. Your loved one deserves to know how he or she made you feel. Don't miss this opportunity to share your gratitude for his or her presence in your life.
How to Comfort Someone Who’s Afraid of Dying
Death is one of the most common fears and it's important to approach a fear of death with caution. If your loved one is afraid of death, here are some helpful tips.
Tip: It may be easier to have this conversation after you read a book about death positivity or the experience of dying. We recommend When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi or Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them) by Sallie Tisdale.
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Respect the process
The fear of death is real and isn't an easy thing to come to terms with. If your loved one is afraid to die and has shared this with you, there's no need to try and fix it. All you have to do is listen.
Listen with no judgment so your loved one feels safe talking with you. Talking with you about it may even lessen your loved one’s anxiety. It’s a big transition and it's important to make space for this. Respect these feelings and let your loved one know you’re there.
Don’t pretend to know how your loved one feels
Try to avoid statements like "I can't imagine how you feel," or "If I were you, I would feel..." This isn't your death experience and you should avoid making it about you. As a family member or friend, the best you can do is show up and offer unconditional love.
If your loved one fluctuates between acceptance and denial of death, it's okay. Make space for these feelings and be careful not to make any assumptions about how your loved one might feel.
The best thing you can do is show your unwavering support when someone is afraid. Let your loved one know that he or she is not alone and that you’re there every step of the way.
You can offer to coordinate a schedule so that someone is with your loved one at all times if he or she is afraid to die alone.
Your conversations with dying people are different depending on who the person is. One of the best tools to use when talking with a dying person is to trust and let go. Let go of your agenda to control, fix, or steer the conversation. Second, trust yourself to be able to make conversation with your loved one. The way you carry yourself and show up in conversation will make a big impact.
Envision yourself as a channel for what needs to come through — let your loved one lead the way. This is a sacred transition, so keep in mind that silence is powerful. Finally, trust your intuition and don't be afraid to invite some laughter throughout the process.