What to Say (& Avoid Saying) to Someone Who is Dying?

Sick, middle-aged woman looking sadly at her doctor who is checking a tablet

It can be very difficult talking to someone who is terminally ill or dying. If it is a loved one who is dying, you may be so full of emotions that you don’t know how to talk to this person who means so much to you and will at some point in the near future no longer be there.

Or maybe the person who is dying is an acquaintance. You may not know the proper way to interact with this person, and you may likely be worried about saying something inappropriate.

While the correct thing to say to someone who is dying will invariably differ depending on the person who is dying and your relationship with them, there are certainly some general guidelines about what to say to a dying person and what to avoid saying.

And if you are at a loss for what to say, we hope that what follows in the rest of this article can help you find the right words. The important thing to remember is that whether you are comfortable speaking about death and dying or not, being there for your loved one can make a world of difference to them as they go through this difficult time. 

Cancer woman lying in hospital bed, touching child's hand

Tips for Talking to Someone Who Is Dying

1. Take the initiative and start the conversation 

When someone is dying, they are often fatigued and will hold many conversations with caregivers and loved ones. This does not mean that they want to talk to you any less. What it simply means is that it would be nice to take the burden of beginning a conversation off of their shoulders.

Of course, there will be terminally ill or dying people who are still bubbling with words, and in this case, taking the initiative is not necessary. Still, in many cases, it is a good idea to help get the conversational ball rolling.

The goal is not to dominate where to conversation goes, but to open up the space for the dying person to speak if they desire to speak. Some specific ideas for starting a conversation are listed below:

  • Check-in and ask how they’re doing. Ask how their day was. Then ask follow-up questions to show you’re fully listening and give them the chance to discuss their feelings and concerns.
  • Reassure your dying loved one that you’re here for them. They might be feeling lonely or scared of what is to come. Reassurance that they aren’t alone is important.
  • Ask if there is anything specifically they want to talk about. Ask if there is anything they want you to know before they’re gone.
  • Ask how you can help. If they have specific wants or wishes, help make a plan to see they’re carried out and take responsibility. It’s also a good idea to discuss practical arrangements like their funeral wishes or preparing their will.

2. Follow their conversational lead

Everyone approaches death differently, so when you are conversing with someone who is going to die soon, it is good to follow their lead in terms of conversational topics. Some people like to talk about death and will do so bluntly, while others will want to avoid the topic.

It is important that you be prepared to talk about death with someone who wants to talk about it, and if you are not, you should simply let them know that it is too hard for you to talk about. However, if the person you are talking to wants to avoid the topic of death, you will definitely want to avoid making any mention of death.

If your loved one isn’t openly discussing the end-of-life process, you should listen for cues that they might be ready to talk about death. This could mean talking about their symptoms, their emotional state, or not being around in the future. If you think it’s a cue, be compassionate and ask questions allowing them to clarify how they are feeling or what they mean. Listen carefully.

Of course, the conversation may have nothing to do with death. The dying person may simply want to talk about their fondest memories or a particular flower they love. The conversation can truly go anywhere, and going into a conversation with a dying person should not be treated as if it was confined to a few prescribed topics. 

The key is to simply let the conversation flow, letting the dying person take the lead, while you keep your ears open for cues of where the dying person may want the conversation to go, even if they are not ready to say what they want to talk about outright. 

3. Focus on their needs 

When spending time with your dying friend or loved one, be attentive and focus on their unique emotional needs. How can you comfort them? Talking to them should be a part of palliative care. Ask what they need and if there’s anything special you can get them.

It may be as simple as physical affection. A hug or gently holding their hand might mean everything. Or some people appreciate tangible gifts. These can be meaningful such as photographs and mementos from times spent together, or one of their favorite things such as flowers.

Being attentive to their needs will help them feel supported and surrounded by love during the end-of-life process and their stage in end-of-life care.

4. Don’t avoid the topic of death

This point was briefly touched on before, but it is important not to avoid the topic of death if that is what the dying loved one wants to talk about. This can be incredibly difficult for the person talking to the dying loved one, and it may be appropriate to remain silent.

However, it is important not to act afraid of death since the dying person is probably dealing with their own fear of dying and may feel those fears being relieved by talking about the subject. 

Unfortunately, it’s a common misconception that talking about someone’s terminal illness or impending death is negative and will only upset the person. For many, talking honestly about death is actually a relief. 

Being able to talk about death openly helps a dying person to express their emotions and fears. When they feel heard and understood, this can help reduce stress about the dying process and bring people closer together.

Sometimes a person in the process of dying will want to discuss what it has been like for them to go through this. This may feel uncomfortable for some, but it is especially important that your friend or family member gets to voice his or her concerns and questions.

He or she may want to talk about funeral arrangements, organ donation, or making a will. Listen, ask questions respectfully, and make sure they feel heard during this time.

5. Express yourself honestly

You want your conversation or conversations with a dying loved one to be authentic for both parties. It is likely that a dying person will feel free to be fully authentic, and you should take this opportunity to be fully authentic as well. Express your feelings.

This could mean crying or being silent. This is an opportunity to become much closer to your loved one. Of course, you don’t want to overburden the dying loved one, but refraining from oversharing should not be a constraint on being authentic. 

6. Let them know you are there to talk if they wish

Not everyone who is near death will want to talk, and it is important to respect their wishes if this is what they desire. Even if they do not want to talk, it is important to let them know that you are there to talk or listen to them if they would like, while also reassuring them that it is totally okay if they wish to remain silent or be left alone. 

7. Listen, listen, listen 

Death and dying can bring up a lot of anxiety within yourself, so try to just be there with them in the moment and validate their thoughts and emotions, even if your opinions or thoughts are different. Slow down and really listen to what your friend or a family member has to say.

Some people want to share their favorite memories at the end of their lives and may feel comforted when someone stops to listen to a favorite story from their childhood. Others may have worries and fears they want to share. Listen without passing judgment and offer support and validation.

8. Talk about past memories 

Often, a dying person will want to talk about past memories that bring them joy. This can be an especially fruitful topic of conversation if you and the dying person have shared memories together.

Of course, having shared memories together is not necessary. It may be very nice for the dying person to talk about their memories and life experiences. You can learn a lot about the dying person and grow closer to them as you learn about their life and what mattered to them.

9. What to say if the person dying is an acquaintance?

If an acquaintance tells you that they are in the process of dying or entering their final days, or you hear about it from someone else, keep in mind that it’s okay to not know what to do or say. You may simply be a care provider responsible for the hospice patient. Saying something simple or reaching out with a gesture can look like this:

  • Baking them something special.
  • Offering to be there for them if they want to talk.
  • Telling them, “I heard about what’s going on and am here for you.”
  • Sending a card, flowers, or food delivery with a note that says you are thinking of them.
  • Saying to them, “I am so sorry to hear about what you are going through, please let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

10. What to say if a person is nearing death

You may find yourself in a situation where you are present as a person goes through their last seconds of life. It is not uncommon for people so near death to hallucinate or not be fully cognizant, and for that reason, you may not be sure what to say. 

It is important to remember that there is a good chance that your words will reach them, even if all health care methods and doctors’ best efforts have been exhausted. Tell them that you love them, that you are there for them, and say your final goodbyes. 

Senior woman holding the hand of a sick man lying in a hospital bed

What to Avoid Saying to a Person Who is Dying?

1. Discussing your religious thoughts without asking first 

It is important not to push your religious thoughts and beliefs onto someone who is a hospice patient. This can come as unwelcome and unthoughtful since the dying person may hold very different beliefs and find solace in those beliefs.

If you do wish to talk about religious matters, then you should first ask if that is an appropriate thing to talk about. In some cases, a dying person may very much enjoy talking about religion and religious matters. They may even express a desire for spiritual care. This is why it is important to ask. 

2. Cliches and corny phrases 

You certainly want to avoid saying cliches about death and repeating corny phrases you may have seen on television. This can come across as disingenuous and is also unlikely to bring comfort to the dying person.

As we said before, it is important to be authentic and cliches bring a feeling of inauthenticity and emptiness, and therefore, are the wrong thing to say. 

3. Focusing solely on your feelings

When a person is a hospice patient who is near death or has received a terminal diagnosis, it is important to let them talk about their feelings. It would be unkind to take up their time by simply talking about your feelings and making their death about you when it is really about them and what they are going through.

This is not to say that you cannot express your feelings. This only means that you need to allow space for the dying person to express their feelings. 

Moving Forward as They Move On

Dealing with a loved one’s death can be extremely difficult, and the fear and grief of losing a loved one can feel overwhelming. However, your conversations with a dying loved one can be some of the most meaningful that you have ever had with them and can deepen your relationship at this critical time.

The most important thing to remember is that you are there to comfort them, and you should allow them to talk about what they want to talk about, as you listen, and then respond sincerely and with love and empathy. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *