As a trusted source for caregivers, and everything that comes with being one, we often are faced with difficult questions about death. One of these is the question of what to do or say when someone you know or love is dying.
It is important to note that there is no set way to handle such a situation, as different people have different experiences. What to say to someone who is dying can depend on the person’s family traditions, beliefs, and religion. One person may be more comfortable speaking about death than the other. Hence, it is important to be respectful of what the person wants in the situation, and avoid being overbearing or forceful in any way.
Even if you worry about not saying the “right” thing, do not worry about saying something perfect and profound. Just your presence alone may be enough to calm this person you love in their final days.
It is often difficult to find the right words to say, so in this article we will provide general guidance on some of the things you can say when someone is dying.
What To Say To Someone Who Is Afraid Of Dying
Alongside speaking to your loved one, it is also important to listen to them. Listening to their thoughts and fears with an open mind and heart can lessen their anxiety and bring them some calm by letting things off their chest.
Your loved one may find it hard to initiate a conversation about death themselves. It is important not to avoid the subject as it can increase negative emotions and cause tension which is something to be strongly avoided. It may help for you to start the conversation with a statement such as “I know this is difficult, but it may help for you to talk about how you are feeling, and your fears.” This can open up the door to a conversation they may otherwise be too afraid to initiate themselves.
Be supportive. It is important that you are supportive in your words. Saying things like “I’m here for you.” or “It’s okay to be scared.” or asking questions like “Is there something that helps calm you?” can be very meaningful. Even sharing your feelings about the situation can be helpful to maintain an open conversation, but it is important to not go too far and make the situation just about you, as they are the ones facing the experience of dying. Just letting them know that you’re sad too can help you both cope with the difficult emotions.
You can also take this opportunity to let them know how much you admire the way they are handling the dying process. This person may be harboring anxieties, and it could be quite comforting to hear you say just how valuable their strength is to you. For example, you might say, “The strength that you are showing during this process is a gift that I will carry for the rest of my life, because you’re showing me that I don’t need to be afraid either,” a concept that the philosopher Stephen Jenkinson explores more in this video.
It is also important that you avoid advice. While you will have your own emotions to grapple with, it is important to be there for them and help them feel listened to. It may help to avoid statements like “I understand how you feel.” or “I know exactly what you mean.” Even saying “It’s going to be okay.” should be avoided, as you actually don’t know if it’s going to be okay, and you don’t want this person to feel lectured or preached to.
It is important that you don’t try to ‘fix’ the situation, or downplay it. Listening intently, being encouraging, supportive, and creating a safe atmosphere that helps them feel like it is okay to speak openly is what is important.
What To Say To Someone Who Is Dying Of Cancer or Another Illness
Cancer and terminal illness affect people deeply, both the person suffering from it, and their loved ones. Here are some things that can be said to someone dying of cancer, and things to keep in mind when saying them.
- Tell them you love them
Say “I love you.” freely. It is the simplest way to tell your loved one how much you care about them. It can also help them feel less alone in the experience and can help lessen the despair.
- Don’t say it’s going to be okay
There is no sure way for you to know that it’s going to be okay. To ensure you are being respectful in your way of supporting the person, acknowledging the fact that they can die soon can make it easier for both sides to cope and discuss the situation.
- Make it clear that you are there for them, then really be there for them, even if they don’t ask for it
People who have been suffering from an illness, and are nearing death often want to avoid feeling like a burden. You can say “Call me if you need me” or “I’m here if you need me” but actually taking the effort to go ahead and do things and be there for them even when they don’t directly ask you to, can be the kindest thing to do.
- Give and ask for forgiveness
Often there are things you regret and wish you had done differently in your relationship with the person who is dying, so asking for forgiveness can be cathartic for both of you. They might even ask for forgiveness back, lifting a weight off both your shoulders, now that the unsaid has been said. However, don’t brood out loud about small issues of the past with the person who is dying as this may just perpetuate negative emotions and energy, and defeat the purpose and purity of just asking for forgiveness.
- Express your gratitude and reminisce
Telling the person who is going to pass away about the best memories you have of them, or things they have taught you in life can be a loving way to spend the last moments you have with them. This can also bring a sense of normalcy, which many people do want in such a grave situation as it can relieve some of the anxiety and brevity surrounding them. If appropriate, and if your loved one seems to be okay with it, then adding humor to your words can also help them feel more at ease, and serve as a way of coping. Your loved one may also enjoy listening to old music, and looking at photographs.
- Tell them you’re thinking of them
Many people say “I will pray for you.”, which is something that should be said only if you are highly aware of the person’s religious stance and comfort with such statements. If you are not sure then a simple “You are in my thoughts.” or “I’m thinking of you.” can show your love for them and make them feel less alone.
- Say goodbye in your own way.
Goodbye doesn’t always have to be saved for the very last moment. You can take your time to tell them just how important they are to you and how you will always love them and remember them for the person they were to you. It doesn’t have to be very emotional but it can give you both the sense of peace that the goodbyes were said.
- Speak but also do
Even though words are important, a lot can be said through gestures too. Doing small things that can make them feel loved and cherished, like getting them their favorite food, or arranging a way for them to meet family that may not live close by, or even just giving them a hug can say a lot.
What To Say In A Card To Someone Who Is Dying
Whether you are very close with the person who is dying or not, cards are often a very meaningful way to reach out to them. Finding words can be difficult, but it is worth the effort to write out a sincere message to them, that lets them know you are thinking of them.
Often when someone is dying they have already been transferred to hospice care. That is why sending a ‘get well soon’ card is not appropriate in such a situation. It can increase tension, especially in a family that is still dealing with the difficult transition. Instead, focus on writing a poignant and meaningful message to the person that you care about that acknowledges that they are dying.
Many commercial cards with pre-written messages lack the personal touch and may not always express what you feel in the best way possible. Handwriting a card is the best option to show how much you really care.
The person who receives the card may feel touched at the fact that you reached out to them with a warm and heartfelt message, and reassure them that they are surrounded by love even in such a difficult time.
Some things you can say to someone who dying in a card can be:
- “I am thinking of you.”
- “You mean so much to those around you.”
- “I am so thankful that I know such a beautiful being.”
- “I love you.”
- “The moments we’ve spent together have been some of my dearest memories.”
- Talk about a cherished memory that you both share.
- Thank them, whether it is for something particular that you are grateful for, or for their presence in your life overall.
Writing a card can be a good way to express emotions and respectfully support the person who is dying.
Take Care of Yourself as Well
Grief is powerful, and it expresses itself differently in different people. It’s important to recognize that you are also processing trauma right now as well, and you may need some time to relax and cope. Take it slow, and be sure not to burn out. You may need to also be present with your loved ones, such as children or siblings if you have any. Avoid excessive drinking or risky behavior, and take some time off from work if you can. You may also want to learn about the dying process so that you generally know what to expect. All these positive habits will help you and your dying loved one(s) process this trauma in a healthy way, together.
Trust your gut and intuition. You may find yourself over-analyzing how to carry the conversation, but in such situations, just being yourself and speaking from the heart is often the way to go. Let your loved one guide you, and you can say what needs to be said.
Death is a difficult experience for everyone involved, but sometimes the right words can make it a bit easier to cope with. But this is also a unique opportunity to help someone feel less alone in such a lonely experience.
- Tips for Talking with Someone Who is Dying, Virtual Hospice, https://www.virtualhospice.ca/en_US/Main+Site+Navigation/Home/Topics/Topics/Communication/Tips+for+Talking+with+Someone+Who+is+Dying.aspx
- What to Say to Someone Who’s Very Sick, AARP, https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2018/terminal-illness-friend-advice.html
- What to say when someone is dying; tips from a master in her field, Palliative Care, https://palliativecare.org.au/what-to-say-and-do-when-someone-is-dying-tips-from-a-master-in-her-field/
- Talking about dying, Cancer Research UK, https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/coping/dying-with-cancer/coping-with-the-news/talking-about-dying