What to Say to a Dying Person
How to have meaningful conversations during the end-of-life stages
In order to pass away with dignity, patients need both physical and emotional support. While patients have doctors and nurses to attend to their physical needs, the care they provide often can feel impersonal.
Because they are responsible for so many patients, few doctors have time to care for them holistically. With a focus on eliminating pain, doctors may inadvertently neglect the patient’s emotions, so patients must rely on loved ones for this type of support.
Family and friends play a crucial role in end-of-life care, but end-of-life conversations are challenging for them as well. It may seem impossible to find words, but starting from a place of love can make all the difference. Love is the easiest thing to convey and helping people work through their emotions is simple—all it takes is having someone there to listen.
Knowing what to say starts with listening
When someone has been going through medical treatment for a while, they can start to feel invisible, like a diagnosis and not a person. Medical staff are very task-oriented, so not all of them take the time to talk with their patients.
This is especially true of older adults dealing with senility. At times, they might not remember seeing a family member or friend, even if they visit every day. Caregivers can help support everyone through the process with compassion and loving-kindness.
As a caregiver, the best way to support someone whose end-of-life stages are upon them is to simply ask questions and listen. If you don’t know what to say to a dying person, inquire about their past. Ask about their stories, even if they can’t remember every detail or confuse dates, names, or times.
An easy ice-breaker is all you really need to get a conversation started:
- Where did you grow up?
- Where did you go to school?
- How many kids did you have?
- What kind of pets did you own?
- How did you meet your spouse?
The more you know about them, the easier it will be to personalize your visits and give them a chance to share their thoughts, cares, and concerns. Make sure they see you are interested. Smile, relax, and look them in the eyes—it shows them that you’re listening.
Keeping it light
For obvious reasons, it is not unusual for people to be distraught and depressed when facing the end of their life. No one is required to maintain a positive attitude in this situation, but if you want to help a person who is passing find meaning and significance, encourage them to focus on the good more than the bad.
If you’re a friend or family member, talking about fun memories or people who’ve brought them joy can make a world of difference. If you don’t know what to say, talk about their grandchildren, the beautiful day, and the gifts they received during their life.
To help your conversations along, try bringing in flowers or opening the shades. Making the room brighter and more colorful will do a lot to improve their moods and lift their spirits.
Being open and staying present
Oftentimes, when someone is dealing with a terminal illness, they are frightened and unsure of the future. They have a lot of pent-up emotions they need to express, so it is important not to approach your visits with any kind of agenda, whether you’re immediate family or a caretaker.
More important than knowing what to say to a dying person is giving them the chance to share what they are feeling. This applies to the patient and their family members equally; the end-of-life stages impact everyone, so creating space for self-expression serves more than just one person.
Make sure they know it is okay to say whatever they have to, however they have to. It will not always be pretty, but it is important for them to express their feelings in the most genuine way they can. You never want a person to feel they cannot speak their mind around you, whether it’s a terminally-ill patient, their friends or family.
You may encounter people who aren’t ready to talk…and that’s okay. Not everyone is eager to talk, regardless of the feelings bottled up inside. Start small, with tangible, everyday matters. It builds trust and opens the door to further conversation. If you cannot think of what to say to a dying person, try turning to their family for help.
Talking to family is an effective way to motivate someone reluctant to open up. Sometimes, just overhearing caretakers having friendly discussions with family members can get a patient to open up; establishing conversation with family can help them too, giving them something else to focus on. Their ability to redirect their attention helps their loved one realize they can do the same thing too.
When you cannot decide what to say to a dying person, the best thing to do is stop by for a visit. Seeing you, face-to-face, is what is important. Listen and follow their lead, wherever it takes you. Encourage them to remember the good times, and never leave without a hug.