When Someone’s Dying, What To Say?


Dear J,

What are the right things to say to friends or relatives who are terminally ill, or to their caretakers?  Do you ask about death, or if they’re scared, or peaceful? Do they want to talk about it or are they sick of talking about it?  It’s nuts to chat about the weather and what’s on TV when the most important event of their lives is about to take place.

p.s. Also, how do I pay a kind, comforting visit when I can’t stop weeping the moment I step into their house?

I’m going to address your ‘p.s.’ first. Depending on how close you are to the person, how comfortable you are with expressions of emotion (do you have a personal loss that’s very recent, for example) you may or may not be able to manage your emotions. This is a situation where you must try to accept yourself, trust that whatever comes over you will be OK. Your emotions are pretty far down the list for a person or family of a person near death. Just grab a tissue, or use your sleeve and ask the family how they are doing. “I’m so sorry” is acceptable. Maybe there are people who know just how to handle these situations (hospice workers are amazing in this regard), but the average person is normally overwhelmed. I suppose that the best one can do is to be present, be grateful to see your friend or relative, “I am so glad to be able to see you, to be here with you, is there anything you’d like me to know?”…or let them know how grateful you are to be there, tears and all.  Everyone is different, which is why, hard as it is, the best course is to stay in the moment and respond as honestly and warmly as you can. Sometimes silence and tears are all we can muster, but that is still vastly preferable to staying away. I must share this moment, recounted by a close friend, upon seeing a mutual friend the night before he died. Friend One said to the dying friend, “How is it to be so close to death?” to which our Friend Two replied, “How is it to pretend you’re not?”

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