What to Say to Someone Who Is Dying

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Visiting someone who is dying can create a lot of anxiety about how to act and what to say. Will she be upset? What if I cry in front of her? Will I say the wrong thing? The truth is, there is no perfect approach to offering support to a loved one on their deathbed—but there are words and behaviors to keep in mind while you are by a dying person’s side to make the interactions less tense or burdensome, says Louis Monticchio, director of pastoral care at Barnabas Health Home Care and Hospice in New Jersey.

“When we typically have conversations with people in our daily lives—at work or in a social setting—you are able to bring your own perspective and experience to the topic,” Monticchio explains. “When you’re dealing with end of life, it’s not a subject that we all have our own perspectives on. Some of the awkwardness comes from the fact that the very topic has a great deal of fear, and pain, and total mystery surrounding it.”

Monticchio’s advice: Let the other person who is dying dictate the conversation, and be a great listener. “You don’t have to have all the answers; you don’t have to be a fixer,” he notes. With the guidelines below, end-of-life interactions can feel comfortable and authentic for both parties involved.

Follow their lead

Let your friend or family member who is dying guide you through what’s happening and what they are experiencing right then, says Monticchio. “To launch the conversation, all you want to do is invite them to share whatever they are feeling and experiencing—and all you have to do is hold it,” he explains.

This is called empathetic listening, “which means you reflect back what you hear the person on their deathbed express to you about how they are feeling, but without trying to provide an answer or advice,” says Monticchio. You’re there to be a set of ears. You can respond to their thoughts and emotions with, “ I can only imagine what that feels like” or “I get it.” (Related: What Are the Emotions of the Dying?)

How do you make the person feel comfortable enough to go there with you emotionally? Monticchio suggests one of these simple approaches to offer the person dying the driver’s seat:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What’s going on today?
  • What is today like for you?
  • Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
  • What’s on your mind?

If you continue to spend more time by this person’s bedside, you will probably get better at reading expressions, emotions, or even when they seem tired and ready to be alone. “For example, you might see their face fall, or even tears enter their eyes,” says Monticchio. “You can say, ‘I’m sensing some sadness. Is there something specific bringing that on for you right now that you’d like to talk about?’”

The person who is dying may look to you for some answers. She may have specific requests or needs, from her end-of-life care to what to do with her belongings after she dies to passing along a message to someone who cannot visit. “Again, empathetic listening is key. You want to assure the person that you are hearing their needs,” says Monticchio. “You can say, ‘I hear you. I will make sure that happens.’ And if you don’t know an answer, be as honest as possible and say, ‘I don’t know, but we will find the right person to help with this.’”

Make it personal

A dying person may not want all of the conversations and visits to feel grave. A simple way to move the conversation into a lighter territory is by sharing special memories, notes Monticchio. “Why do we only eulogize after they’ve died? It’s so powerful to do a sort of life review right now, while we have the person with us,” he points out.

“I’ve walked into rooms where the heaviness is palpable. The family’s there, the person’s in the bed, and no one is even talking,” he says. “So sometimes I will ask, ‘Joe, what’s something silly or random that brought you total joy in life?’ You really start to see the family and the individual perk up. ‘Joe loves barbecuing—he hosted these neighborhood parties and would barbecue for everyone.’ And then it spurs another story that someone else remembers and snowballs.”

Be open with your emotions

Acting as authentic as possible generally resonates more with the person dying than trying to put up a strong front, says Monticchio. “We often think that we need to put on a certain type of face, whether that’s a forced cheery attitude or trying not to let the individual see our sadness,” he explains.

During the end-of-life, many things the person on his or her deathbed once associated with her self-identity get stripped away: independence, mobility, hobbies, relationships. “They start to begin questioning their reality,” explains Monticchio. “So in this moment, authenticity is probably one of the most precious things for that person.” (Related: End-of-Life Doulas: A New Type of Support and Care.)

That may mean allowing yourself to cry when you feel tears coming on, or even saying to the person, “I want you to know I may become emotional, and we can navigate this together.”

Say “I love you”

When someone close to you is nearing death, it can stir up feelings of regret or an urge to apologize for things in the past (small or large). I should have made more of an effort to see her over the past few years. I shouldn’t have missed her 50th birthday party. Instead of resurfacing negatives, put the focus on how much the person means to you in the now.

“In this moment, it’s not about litigating personal matters anymore,” says Monticchio. “If you feel there is air to clear—or even if you don’t—saying ‘I love you’ can be this powerful statement that captures much more. You’re sending the message, ‘The only thing that is important to me right now is making sure you know how much you mean to me.’” (Related: How to Support a Loved One Who is Dying.)

Welcome silence

Don’t stress over finding the perfect words to say. In fact, leaving room for silence can be comforting (even if it feels awkward). “Many people think you have to have a practiced script, but actually the encounter is about being physically and emotionally present with the person,” says Monticchio. “It’s a different kind of communication; it’s less cognitive and more heart-centered.”

Monticchio suggests thinking of the end-of-life interaction like sharing a sunset: “If you’re sitting and soaking up a sunset with a person you care about, you don’t typically use words. You don’t really need them,” he explains. “You witness it together silently, and yet there’s this sharing of a sense of awe, intimacy, and closeness.”

 

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