Whether you’re a palliative care professional or close family member to someone who is nearing the end of their life, knowing what to say to someone who is dying can feel like a delicate and confusing tightrope walk. While our natural instinct is to soften the tone of our language to cushion them through the process, the opposite fear is being disingenuous with our words and ignoring the elephant in the room. In this piece, we’re going to explore how to speak to someone who is dying in a way that is supportive as well as sincere.
Remember That This Isn’t About You
When speaking with a person who is dying, we have the tendency to let our own thoughts and feelings guide our speech and even to make us feel the need to speak at all. In many instances, letting the individual guide the conversation is the key to the most supportive conversation you can have. If they want to know how you are feeling, they will typically ask, but remember that just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean they don’t care. This situation isn’t about you so it’s best to be a helpful passenger in the conversation rather than a backseat driver.
Never Speak To Someone Or About Someone As Though They’re Already Gone
Unless you work in hospice care or in some avenue of palliative care, we typically don’t interact with dying people that much. This lack of experience can make us emotionally combine the process of dying with the process of grieving a death. While grieving may begin even upon discovering that someone is dying, the language associated with grieving their death has a time and a place — after they’ve passed away. Offering sympathies to the families of someone who is dying or even carrying such a tone when speaking to dying is generally not helpful, if not insensitive to their current needs. While there is still time that can be spent with the person, it should be spent helping them in whatever capacity they need — physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Feel Free To Dive Into Positive Memories
Our memories are our most prized possessions. When speaking with someone who is dying, if the conversation is flowing, feel free to ask them questions about some of their favorite memories. Ask them about their favorite people and the specific moments they have spent with them. Ask them if they have any particularly funny stories about these people. Ask them what details they love the most about their loved ones. Their answers can be tremendous mood lifters and distractions from hardships. This line of conversation comes with a disclaimer: Though memories can be great conversation starters, it is typically recommended to avoid asking them to recall specific memories that can either end up being painful or if illness or old age have made recalling memories difficult and therefore frustrating.
Don’t Offer Any False Assurances
Coming to terms with the idea of dying is a process unto itself, which makes the act of making false promises or assurances a step backward in the process for the dying. Though our gut reaction tells us that some words of hope may brighten a dying person’s day, the truth is that these false assurances only damage our trust with the individual. They know they are dying and they typically don’t appreciate being lied to. Be willing to talk about the elephant in room if they want to, but don’t make it any heavier with false hopes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Make Peace & Offer Thanks
Though we should make sure to remember that their dying process is not about us, if something we need to say will bring comfort to the dying, it is ok for it to be said. One area that feels negative but can ultimately be positive is asking for the forgiveness of a dying person for any wrong you’ve committed against them or hardship you’ve caused. While it may feel that asking of forgiveness may set a negative tone, asking for forgiveness frequently brings about feelings of reconciliation — a positive occurrence. And even though it may sting of finality, it is ok to thank the dying individual for the positive impact they’ve had on your life. Mentioning specific acts of kindness or ways they have helped you may be a great way to share some positive memories. Hearing specific details about your gratitude may leave the dying feeling better about the positive impact they’ve had on the world as well as the joyous moments you’ve shared.
Sometimes, There’s No Need To Speak
Nobody likes an awkward silence, but an awkward rambling of unguided, unproductive speech can be as equally uncomfortable. In many instances, a dying person, as well as grieving person, doesn’t need you to speak — they just need you to be there. A great approach can be to let the dying or grieving person initiate and steer the conversation. Lend your thoughts to keep the conversation going so they don’t feel like they’re speaking to a wall. In all things, be a helpful passenger on their journey.