Knowing what to say to someone who is dying is extremely difficult. The last thing you want to do is say the wrong thing and upset them or cause offence.
We tend to find talking about death uncomfortable. But when you find yourself talking to someone who is dying it’s easy to be anxious about getting it wrong.
This in turn can lead your conversation to be stilted and awkward. That’s if you even have the confidence to begin talking to them (many people don’t feel able to).
If you’re struggling with what to say to someone dying and are worried about saying the wrong thing and embarrassing yourself then the following advice should help.
Whilst everyone is different and you can’t be sure they will respond positively to what you say there are certain things you can focus on that should work.
So we will look at what you should and shouldn’t say to those dying, both in hospital and out, as well as in a card and how to comfort them if they’re scared.
What to Say to Someone Who is Dying
The following tips will help you with what to talk about with someone who is dying and how to do so without it being uncomfortable. After that there will be examples of what to say that you can use to help start a conversation.
Start the Conversation
Taking that first step can be the hardest part. But it’s important to get over any anxiety you have and just talk to them.
You should always do so with care and understanding though. Try these tips for what to talk about at first and things you should try to remember to bring up:
- Begin by talking to them in the way you usually would. They aren’t going to want special treatment or you to communicate in a different way. Ask them about their day, let them talk about how they’re feeling etc.
- You could also ask them if there are topics or things they want to talk about. Let them be the one who decides where the conversation will go.
- Ask them if there is anything you can do specifically for them or that they need.
- Offer them reassurance if they’re feeling anxious or scared and let them know you’re here for them. Make it clear you’ll continue to be there with them throughout and that they aren’t alone.
- If you can then ask what help they need. They may entrust to you plans they have or wishes for after they’ve gone.
Follow their Lead
When talking to someone who is dying it’s important to listen carefully. You need to pick up on what they are and aren’t comfortable talking about.
Some people will be happy to go straight into talking about death and their own mortality without hesitation. If that’s the case then you can discuss it freely with them, albeit still with a degree of care.
But if they aren’t talking about it that doesn’t mean they don’t want to. It may just mean they aren’t sure how to approach it or they’re aware that it might make others feel uncomfortable.
That’s why you need to listen carefully and look out for any cues or signs they would like to talk about dying. If the conversation drifts into talking about their death indirectly – things like them not being around forever, their symptoms, how they’re feeling – this could be a sign they are looking to talk about dying.
If so then approach it gently and ask them some questions to get a better idea of what they would like to touch on.
But remember that some people will never feel comfortable talking about dying. So don’t push and let the conversation be guided by them.
Be Honest and Clear
There are some people who when they are facing the end of their life prefer not to talk about it. Even as they approach the end they still prefer not to dwell on or talk about the specifics of their death.
And if that’s their choice then you should respect and honor it.
But many people are happy and want to talk about death. It’s better to acknowledge that and discuss things openly and honestly with them. Avoiding doing so could lead to them feeling as if they’re being treated like a child or they’re not able to cope with talking about it.
Instead wait for them to bring up their mortality in some form – via their symptoms, wondering about what death will be like, the afterlife etc. – and then try to engage with them. Don’t skirt around issues even if you feel uncomfortable talking about them.
If they ask a direct question or want to talk in very direct terms then let them. Try things like:
- “You can tell me about what you’re experiencing.”
- “Are you afraid? You can talk to me about it.”
- “How are you feeling?”
- “What do you think is happening?”
Make it About Them
Even though you might be finding it hard dealing with their upcoming death you should be focusing on what they need. Don’t talk or only think of yourself.
Ask them what they want and need in every regard. Do they want other people to visit? Would they actually prefer to have fewer at a time?
Can you get them anything? Maybe a special item or memento they don’t want to be without.
So focus on making sure they are as comfortable as possible. Your support in the regard will be greatly appreciated and let them feel in greater control of what is happening.
Make your Peace With Them
If you had any regrets or disagreements with whoever is dying that are on ongoing or haven’t been resolved then now is the time to put them aside. You can even apologize if you feel bad for something you’ve done and ask for forgiveness.
This could lead to a deeper conversation that enables you both to share things you might not have in other circumstances. An impending death has a way of making you realize the things that seemed important were mere trivialities.
Don’t be Afraid to Laugh
A loved one who is dying is obviously an extremely sad and difficult time. But that doesn’t mean they want to spend their last few days/weeks/months in misery and feeling sorry for themselves.
Laughter is important. And you can still laugh even when you’re nearing the end of your life.
So don’t be afraid to have a joke with whoever it is and share in some laughter. Funny stories or hilarious moments from your past are a great way to remember better times and laugh together.
Being there to reassure someone that is nearing the end of their life is essential. Fear of what is to come will be a big part of how they are feeling so offering reassurance through what you say should be at the front of your mind when you talk to them.
Make your words comforting and do all you can to keep them feeling relaxed. That might include reassuring them about family members and loved ones after they’re gone.
Say “I Love You”
For some people this can be difficult to say but there is no better time. Even if you’ve said it a a thousand times before it’s going to mean even more now.
And if you haven’t said “I love you” before to the person dying or don’t feel comfortable doing so then you should try to overcome it. You won’t get another chance and will regret not doing so once they are gone.
Say “Thank You”
When you are facing the end of your life it can help to know that you were appreciated and made a difference. That’s why you should make time to say “thank you” for everything they have done and for being such an important part of your life.
There might be specific events or reasons that you can talk about and be thankful for. Or just say thanks in general for being such a wonderful friend/family member.
To be loved and remembered is all many of us wish for once we are gone. So it will provide them with some comfort amongst the other emotions they are experiencing.
Reminisce With Them
Remembering the good times you spent with loved ones and looking back on accomplishments and experiences of your life is important to those facing death. So it’s a good idea to reminisce with and allow them the chance to remember those special moments.
Sharing anecdotes and stories is a good way to take a happy trip a trip down memory lane. So encourage them to be open and share whatever memories they want to.
Try asking “what are some of your favorite memories” or “which were the experiences you remember most fondly?”.
Words and talking are vital when someone is dying but physical touch shouldn’t be ignored. There is nothing quite like holding someone’s hand to provide comfort when distressed or afraid.
Try various different forms of contact whilst you’re talking to them: hand holding or a hand placed on theirs, a hand on the shoulder or rubbing their back.
Keep doing this even if they are unresponsive or unable to respond as your words will still be heard and your touch will be felt.
When someone is nearing the end of their life it’s good to keep in mind that each time you say goodbye it could be the last. Which makes saying it even more important.
So every time you part be sure to end your conversation with a proper, meaningful goodbye. One that if it were to be your last you both would be happy with and that would have shown just how much you cared for each other.
What to Say to Someone Who is Dying Soon
When someone is going to pass away soon what you talk about may be quite different to those with longer time left. Some of the advice above is appropriate for anyone who is dying, regardless of how near it is.
But these few extra tips may help when talking to someone who is close to the end.
- Accept that they’re not going to make a recovery. It’s better to be honest about the situation and face up to it.
- Reassure them that their loved ones will be ok after they have gone.
- If you can then inject some humor into your conversation. It won’t be easy but they won’t want to focus only on the negative and depressing aspects of what’s happening and will appreciate a little light relief.
- Talk about their legacy and all they achieved. Make them remember the amazing life they’ve lead, what good they leave behind and the positive impact on others lives they’ve had.
What to Say to Someone Who is Dying and Scared
It’s important to be reassuring and comforting when talking to anyone who is dying. But especially when someone is visibly frightened of dying and death.
It’s completely understandable to be afraid when facing the end of your life.
Reassure Them About Pain
One of the main reasons for the fear of dying is the possibility of pain. Thankfully pain relief and management is a part of terminal care by hospitals.
So if whoever you’re talking to is worried about experiencing pain you can let them know they won’t have to (unless they choose to forego the pain relief).
Be With Them
The fear of death can be less about the death itself and more about being alone as it happens. Facing something so unknown without anyone by your side is bound to cause anxiety.
So visit often and get others to visit too (although don’t exhaust them with too many people). Reassure them that you will be there throughout and will guarantee that someone will be with them whenever they want or need it.
Comfort Them About Their Loved One’s
Often it’s fear of how family and loved ones will cope and deal with death rather than the passing away itself. That worry about what will happen to your family after your gone and who will look after them.
So it’s important for someone to reassure them that their family will be fine, will be looked after and that it’s not something they need to be worried about. You can even talk to them about what they would like to happen after their gone in relation to their family and maybe plan something out.
Explain Their Legacy
Some people worry they’ve lead a pointless life. Or one where they didn’t achieve enough.
So let them know just how special they were to you and others. Go through their achievements and remind them of everything they have done throughout their life.
What to Say to Someone Who is Dying and Unconscious
The person you talk to who is dying might be in a coma or unconscious because of the severity of medication. So how do you approach talking to them?
It’s quite possible that whatever you say may be heard even if they can’t communicate. So it’s recommended that you talk to them as normally as you can.
Go through your day, things you think would interest them, events that have taken place etc. Incorporate touch as well – hold their hand or brush their hair.
It’s also recommended that you engage their senses so bring in their favorite music or flowers they really loved the smell of.
What to Say to Someone Who is Dying from Cancer
Cancer is one of the biggest killers and affects very many of us. When talking to someone dying of cancer much of the advice already recommend here will apply.
But also don’t be afraid of not knowing what to say. They will understand this if difficult for you too.
Instead let them talk and try to listen as much as possible. Quite often those dying will have a lot on their mind and will appreciate those who just sit and listen as they work through it.
What Not to Say to Someone Who is Dying
Understandably you want to avoid saying the wrong thing and potentially making them feel worse. While you should judge each situation individually there are a few things it’s always best to steer clear of talking about:
- Religion – this is always a tricky one so unless you’re absolutely sure about their religious beliefs it’s best to avoid it.
- Make it About Yourself – losing a loved one is so heartbreaking. But you shouldn’t make their dying about you. As hard as you’re finding it that doesn’t compare to what they’re going through.
- Push your Feelings About Death – even if you have very strong views or opinions on death it’s best not to get into them at this time.
- End of Life Plans – yes, it’s important to discuss them but let them lead the way. Don’t push to talk about their plans for after they’ve passed away if they aren’t ready.
- Compare How You Would Feel – it’s very insensitive to talk about how you would feel or cope if you were in their position.
How to Write to Someone Who is Dying
If you can’t visit the person dying to talk to them in person you could write them a letter or card.
- If you haven’t been in contact with whoever is terminally ill then maybe ask someone who has how they are feeling. You want to get some idea of their state of kind before writing anything so you can avoid saying the wrong thing.
- You don’t have to mention or be too specific about their condition. Just a friendly letter from you will likely lift their spirits.
- If you can find a way to inject some humor into your writing then do so. A joke that you share or funny story will be a welcome change for them.
- Don’t be too sentimental. This can make them feel worse and only increase their sadness at what is happening.
What to Write to Someone Who is Dying from Cancer
It’s probably better to write a shorter letter or note rather than a longer one. Cancer and the treatment or medications can lead to fatigue so the recipient may not want to read something too lengthy.
Don’t focus on the negatives in what you write. Stay as upbeat as you can and talk to them like you normally would.
Tell them you’re thinking of them and how much you care. Be honest and speak from the heart.
Whatever you decide to write it will be difficult. Sending a letter to a loved one who is terminally unwell is always going ti be emotional. But they will appreciate you rescuing out at such an incredibly tough time for them.
Finding what to say to someone who is dying is so tough and requires tact and sensitivity. Hopefully the tips provided here will have helped you feel more comfortable when talking to someone who is dying and let you communicate with them properly before they pass away.