What to Say to Someone Who is Dying

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 2.07.33 PMA woman I know recently posted on Facebook that her friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a very short time to live. “I am going to visit her tomorrow. What do I say?” the woman asked. What do you say to someone who is dying?

Most doctors and hospice workers will tell you there are four things people who are dying want to hear. “Forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” Dr. Ira Byock wrote about this in his book The Four Things that Matter Most.

End of life is a time when most people want to resolve unfinished business, express as yet unexpressed feelings, define their legacy and confirm their life had meaning. That’s why those four phrases are appropriate, and powerful. It really can be that simple.

One of the things that struck me as I spent time with my mother after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer was how easy our relationship became. Misinterpretations, frustrations, miscommunication all went away. We asked for and offered each other forgiveness and we expressed our love for each other and then our relationship was distilled down to just being together. It was so uncomplicated. If only we could all operate like that every day.

Of course my mother and I talked about other things too – from paint colors for my kitchen, to childhood memories, to celebrity gossip. So what do you say to a dying person? It depends, but here are some things to keep in mind.

You know that phrase, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason?” This is the time to remember that. Listen. Take your cues from the person who is ill. Maybe they’ll feel like talking. Maybe they’ll just want to sit together. They might like hearing about your day and your life; it could distract them from their own thoughts. Or perhaps they’ll want to talk about dying. Don’t avoid this line of conversation. For starters, they know they’re dying so you shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge it. And secondly, it’s no doubt on their mind.

But don’t push any one line of conversation. You may have a need to discuss something, but they may not. You may feel like crying, but they may feel like laughing. Remember the visit is about them, not you.

Do ask them if there is anything you can help with. My mother had me write some thank you notes for her when she was too weak to hold a pen. She also wanted me to make sure her wishes for her funeral were carried out. She couldn’t make the arrangements so she asked me to help her. Be thoughtful. Be attentive. And most importantly, be yourself. That’s what your friend or family member really needs.



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