What to Say to Someone Who is Dying

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is difficult for both the one who is receiving the news and all of those around them including family members, close friends, and caretakers. When the one giving the care is a family member, it can be much more difficult since they already have a personal investment in the person. Such a diagnosis can bring countless emotions and thoughts about what the future will hold for everyone involved. It can also lead to the need to have some very uncomfortable encounters and conversations while trying to cope with planning the end-of-life care and the grief that goes along with it. 

Most people don’t think about the conversations that one might have until they are in the middle of the crisis, and, therefore, when faced with such a situation, aren’t properly prepared to handle it. Most people, even with the best intentions, don’t know what to say or do and have no idea how to mentally plan for such a discussion. Often, it can be a good idea to consult with someone who is knowledgeable and compassionate who can help address one’s own issues while still caring for the dying person with the dignity, love, and respect that they deserve in such a time.

In This Guide

Follow the Dying Person’s Lead

Everyone is different in how they respond to times of crisis, and it’s no different with people who are facing terminal illness that will eventually end with death. It can take more time for some to process than for others, and it’s important to let them direct the conversations. Sometimes, a person might want to talk about many different things, and, other times, they want to say nothing at all. It’s not as important to say the “right thing” to a patient as it is to know their personal cues and be available when they need listening ear or helping hands.

Gestures can speak volumes to a terminal patient. This means being watchful and aware of all the things that are happening around them in order to understand exactly what they might need. For example, doing things like taking them to the doctor, cleaning house, or fixing a meal. Fun things can be done as well like playing games, watching a movie, or reading a book to or with them. When certain needs are met, they’ll be more willing to discuss some of the tougher things.

Someone Who is Dying

Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute

When a loved one is dying, it can be very difficult to say those things that have not been said for a very long time. Maybe there was a conflict that never was resolved and there is still anger and resentment present. Perhaps some things are merely assumed that they know, but haven’t actually been spoken verbally for many years. There are four things that a dying person typically wants to hear from a loved one:

• Forgive me. There’s nothing that balms the heart on both sides more than admitting a wrong and asking for forgiveness even if it happened years back.
• I forgive you. On the flip side, forgiving them will tie up loose ends and give freedom to both parties.
• Thank you. This is a crucial statement just to acknowledge the part that person played, and that their life did have purpose.
• I love you. This is one of those “assumed” ideas that, more frequently than not, remains unstated. Don’t wait to say “I love you” when talking to someone who is dying. It may be the very last opportunity that can be missed in a flash.

If it’s not possible to tell them in person, it can be sufficient to email, talk on the phone, or even send a card in the mail.

Talk About How They Are Feeling (and Listen)

Terminal patients have feelings, too, and, as a caregiver, family member, or friend, it is vital to acknowledge those things that they consider important in order to let them know they are truly significant in this life. Truly listening to them is the first step to giving them the care that they need. It’s okay to ask them what they need the most, how they are feeling, and how they can get the best care possible. This can also mean going above and beyond what their words say they want and do so much more for them even when it might be inconvenient or seem unnecessary.

Ask Them to Share Memories and End-of-life Goals

Terminally ill and dying people all view their mortality differently and will take different approaches to handling the loose ends in their lives. Some of them might see it more important to mend relationships while others might find it more important to talk about life accomplishments and regrets. The best gift to give these people is the gift of time that is spent talking about all of these things, but it’s also important to encourage them to talk to them about things that make them feel like they’re important. Have conversations about:

• Things they’ve learned
• Legacies they’ve left
• Shared memories
• Memorial plans
• Hope for loved ones

What to say

Be Honest, but Considerate

There’s no reason to avoid the topics of death with a dying loved one. In fact, in order to plan properly, it can be a very vital part of the conversation. It doesn’t mean there will always be an understanding of how to respond to every question or comment, and there may even be questions as to how to feel about any given circumstance. It can be necessary to be frank during the discussion, but it’s also just as necessary to be considerate of their physical, mental, and emotional needs.

What to Avoid Saying

When dealing with a crisis situation, it is critical to understand that not everything that is thought or felt needs to be said. There are some things that a dying person does not need to hear as they will never improve the situation. A few of things that should not be a part of these conversations are:

• Giving false assurances
• Provoking conversion
• Forcing conversation

Some of the words and phrases that would be better left unsaid might include:

• “It must be God’s will”
• “Everything happens for a reason”
• “It’ll be ok”
• “You’re strong”
• “You’ll get through this”

Saying these things can be insensitive to their feelings about the situation, and it can overwhelm them with feelings that are not their own. They need to have the space to feel their personal fears and work through them on their own timeline.

Having these discussions can be very difficult, but, when done with the right preparation and heart behind them, it can be a very beautiful thing when two wounded hearts reach out and touch each other.


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