When someone close to you is dying, it’s natural to seek ways to support them or help relieve their suffering. It’s a pain you’re likely to share, but you may feel at a loss for how you can express it. There’s no secret hiding in plain sight when it comes to what to say to someone who is dying. From reflecting on their life to listening when it counts, we have some guidance to help you through this difficult time.
Comforting someone who is dying
It’s easy to become fixated on finding the exact right words to say when any moment with someone could be our last, but often, the most comfort can be found in the familiar. When it comes to supporting someone who is dying, try to remember your relationship with them before all of this. As much as their situation has changed, their personality and preferences haven’t. It might make them feel unsettled if you suddenly start to treat them differently and act out of the norm.
Comfort can look like:
Staying up all night just talking
Going for a long drive
Listening to an album or watching a show or movie together
Being together in silence
Reminiscing about the past
Cooking their favourite meal (or even yours)
Holding onto these special traditions can help reassure them of your love and remind them of their place in your life, especially when they’re no longer around.
Opening up an honest space
While it can be instinctive to reassure someone that everything will be okay when things are tough, this is a time to sit back and listen to your loved one. If they’re terminally ill, they’ve probably had to process a lot of information from doctors and nurses without being able to just chat about what’s on their mind. Whether they’re afraid, upset, in pain or at peace, lending them a comforting hand to hold and a set of ears to listen can go a long way.
In this situation, you could try opening up an honest space by:
Acknowledging that the situation is difficult, sad or strange, or letting them know their feelings are safe with you
Affirming their emotions and experiences
Letting them vent freely without judgement
Asking questions that help them express their feelings
Following their lead in what they’re comfortable with sharing
Cracking a joke if it suits their sense of humour
Discussing their thoughts and wishes for practical arrangements
Listening to their concerns about what will happen when they’re no longer around
Actively listening, without trying to cheer them up, can bring some much needed relief. It can also help guide you in knowing what they need from you and what you’re able to give them. And remember, it’s okay to cry.
Starting a supportive conversation
When in doubt, talk to your loved one about the things they care about. If they want to talk about their death, let them, but know it’s okay to discuss other things. If they’re a gossip-fiend, don’t hold back on the juicy information you’ve heard. If they’re a lovable wisecracker, engage them in a friendly debate. Whatever it is, you know them well enough to focus on the things they care about outside of their life stage.
It’s also okay to address how you’re feeling upfront. Just as well as you know them, they know you. They’ll probably get a whiff of any uncertainty or discomfort you’re feeling, so tackle it head on.
Try one or two of these as conversation starters:
“How are you feeling today?”
“I’m not exactly sure what to say, but I’m here for you.”
“Fancy binge watching something?”
“I’ll make us a cup of tea and I can go and pick up your meds.”
“I’m not going anywhere, you’re not alone.”
“I feel a bit awkward talking about it, but it’s important to let you know how much you mean to me.”
“I want to thank you for….”
“Did you hear about…?”
“Do you remember when…?”
Avoiding conversation missteps
No one gets it right all the time. While there’s little point in dwelling on an out-of-turn comment that slipped out, you’re probably going to want to be a bit more conscious about sensitive or potentially hurtful topics.
Watch out for these well-intentioned but potentially upsetting blunders:
Hold back on those stories about people who miraculously beat illnesses
Keep their beliefs in mind, especially if they differ to yours (e.g. someone who is agnostic might not want to talk about the afterlife)
Try not to focus completely on their illness
Avoid making assumptions about whether they’re too unwell to attend a gathering
Don’t wait around for them to tell you what they need, just start doing things
Switch your phone off and give them your full attention
Caring for your own needs
When caring for someone who is dying, it’s not unusual to experience your own emotional and physical exhaustion. Your loved one might be your number one priority right now, leaving you with little time to rest or care for yourself. This might leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed, so it’s important to recognise your own needs and the loss you’re also experiencing.
This is sometimes easier said than done, as thinking of yourself might bring up feelings of guilt. Depending on your situation, it can be helpful to reach out to mental health professionals or palliative care teams for specialist end-of-life advice.
Our team can help
We understand how difficult death and grief can be, so we’re here to support you with whatever you need. Whether you’re planning a funeral or applying for probate, our thoughtful team can help you through the process and answer any questions you may have.