Hospice & Palliative Care

FAQs How to Talk with Someone Who Is Dying

FAQs How to Talk with Someone Who Is Dying

How do you say goodbye to someone who is dying and is receiving hospice care?

The word “goodbye” does not specifically need to come up in conversation. However, talking over the history of your relationship with your friend or family member can be a rich source of intimacy as you prepare for their death. It is also important to conduct yourself just as you normally do with this person, e.g., you can still make jokes or talk about sports if that was central to your relationship. To do otherwise makes everyone feel awkward and like you aren’t being genuine. It is also perfectly okay to say, “I’m not sure what to say to you but I’m here for you, and I will keep being here as long as you want me to be.”

I’m afraid of saying the ‘wrong thing’. Are there tips on what not to say to a friend who is dying?

There really are no “wrong words” to say but do avoid using clichés that sound trite or impersonal, e.g., “we all have to die someday” when trying to be comforting or a companion to someone who is dying. Use your own true thoughts and feelings if you are close to this person and let them know how much you think about them and how much you have benefitted from knowing them.

The best rule of thumb is to ask them up front if it is okay to talk about a particular topic, e.g., “Do you mind telling me what your thoughts are right now about what you’re going through? I’d really like to know.” It is also perfectly okay to say, “I’m not sure what to say to you but I’m here for you, and I will keep being here as long as you want me to be.”

Lastly, sometimes saying nothing is just what your loved one needs. You can put on the TV or some music and spend that time listening to or watching a program together, just sitting side by side. Honoring silence is a wonderful gift for someone whose energy is limited or emotions are overwhelming to them.

This is hard for me emotionally. I feel like crying but don’t want to make my friend upset or more depressed. What should I do?

Contrary to causing your friend or loved one to feel more upset or depressed, your tears may say something very beautiful to them, especially if you let them know how glad you are to have met them and had such wonderful times together. The only time that emotion like this is not recommended is if your crying is related to you feeling angry that they didn’t continue getting treatment or disagree with how their doctor provided care. This is not helpful for anyone to have to engage in when their end of life decisions have already been made and they have let go of anything their medical professionals may have done/not done.

I truly want to be supportive but can’t seem to make myself visit my friend who is dying. Does this make me a bad friend or family member?

It makes you very human, even though it feels uncomfortable to you. Many people worry about “how it will look” if they don’t come to the house or hospital or put in an appearance like others are doing. Above all else, honor your limits and find ways you can work within them that do not stress you unnecessarily. Even if you don’t pay a visit, you can send a card, an e-mail with a photo of you and your friend, or call and limit it to 5 minutes or so. On the other hand, you might visit with a small group of other friends. Doing something as a group during a difficult time makes it feel more tolerable and lessens the anxiety of visiting 1:1. It also lets your friend know you all really care.

Want to read more on "What to Say to Someone in Hospice?" In the Senior Living blog on A Place for Mom, Deb Hipp interviews Lisa Besse, one of the hospice nurses here at Center for Hospice Care.


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