Family and friends play a crucial role in end-of-life care. While patients have doctors and nurses to attend to their physical needs, the care they provide often feels impersonal. Because they are responsible for so many patients, few doctors have time to care for them as whole people. Because they are focused on eliminating pain, they neglect the patient’s emotions, so patients must rely on loved ones for this type of support. However, knowing what to say to a dying person is not easy. End of life is trying for friends and family as well. Fortunately, these conversations do not have to be difficult or scary. Love is the easiest thing to convey and helping people fight through their emotions is simple as long as you show up.
A lot of times, when someone is dealing with a terminal illness, they are frightened and unsure of the future. They have a lot of pent-up emotion they need to express, so it is important not to approach your visits with an agenda. More important than knowing what to say to a dying person is giving them the chance to share what they are feeling. 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 your loved one to feel they cannot speak their mind around you.
Unsure of What to Say to a Dying Person? Ask & Listen
When someone has been going through medical treatment for a while, they can start to feel invisible, like a diagnosis and not a person. 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. Medical staff are very task oriented, so not all of them take the time to talk with their patients.
Therefore, the best way to support a dying person is to sit and listen. Ask about their stories, even if they cannot remember every detail or are completely wrong. Our chaplain once had a patient who told him her sister was coming to visit, even though her sister had died twenty years earlier. But regardless, the time he spent listening made the day feel special. If you don’t know what to say to a dying person, inquire about their past.
- 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 eye. It shows you are listening.
Our chaplain remembers one patient who was despondent after his wife passed away. The patient’s memory was declining, but during one of the chaplain’s visits, he mentioned his childhood priest, Friar Prado. The chaplain followed up. Have you read anything about him? What did he teach you? Why did you like him? They talked about Friar Prado for almost two hours. Then they reminisced about his wife and her career as a math teacher and homemaker. The patient laughed when he admitted he was never smart enough to keep up with her.
Their conversation changed the atmosphere. Instead of talking about his illness, he was talking about the wonderful things he had experienced, including some of his old war stories. Therapists call this life review, and it is one of the most rewarding things you can do with a dying person. Going through their memories a little at a time brings back the love and happiness they lived through.
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 your loved one find meaning and significance, encourage them to think positively.
If you do not know what to say to a dying person, 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 mood and lift their spirit. Our chaplain even organized a pet therapy day and brought in arts and crafts for our residents. Making something simple as a paper flower is enough to give a person a break from their negative thoughts.
Try to Draw Them Out
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.
Our chaplain once visited a client who had been diagnosed with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) just after he retired. He and his wife had been planning on traveling in their new RV, but sadly his diagnosis wrecked their plans. When he met the chaplain, the patient was obviously upset, but very withdrawn. Instead of talking, he would sit in the background while the chaplain spoke to his wife.
Talking to family is an effective way to motivate someone reluctant to open up. Sure enough, listening to his wife’s chit chat prompted the client to chime in. It took a few visits, but finally he was able to express his disappointment at having his plans thwarted. Discussing the little things opened the floodgates. Eventually, he felt comfortable praying with the chaplain and made peace with what had happened.
Do Not Be Afraid of Personal Touch
When someone is going through the final stages of life, many people are afraid to touch them. They are worried the patient is fragile and might get hurt, but nothing could be further from the truth. Touch is one of the basic ways to show we care. Hugging someone, holding their hand, or patting their shoulder makes them feel connected to you. In situations where you do not know what to say to a dying person, a warm embrace may be the best way to tell someone you love them.
What to Say to a Dying Person
In order to pass away with dignity, loved ones need both physical and emotional support. They have doctors to attend to their disease but need our help to work through their emotions. 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.
Parentis Health Hospice provides spiritual and emotional comfort to patients and families coping with life-limiting illnesses. Learn more about how our chaplains, caregivers, and nurses can help you navigate the end-of-life transition.
Jason Graham has been a hospice chaplain with Parentis Health since 2016. He has served churches throughout Orange County as a teaching pastor, outreach paster, and senior pastor. He counsels hospice patients and their families, offering spiritual comfort and guidance. During the end-of-life process, he works closely with patients, encouraging them to explore their spiritual and emotional needs, as well as providing comfort to their families.
Lewis Jackson writes about technology and healthcare. His work provides practical insight into modern medicine and healthy living.