Being With a Dying Person

Have you just learned that a friend or relative is dying and you’re not sure what to do? Do you want to visit a terminally ill loved one, but don’t want to make the person feel worse?

There is very little in life that can prepare us to watch someone who love die. We may hesitate to visit our dying loved one, or their family, because we fear we won’t know how to act or that we’ll say the wrong thing. These are understandable fears, but they are, in the end, just fears. Our Hospicare staff offer the following thoughts being with someone who is dying.

Be Supportive

Follow their lead. Let your loved one set the standard for how your interactions proceed. If the person wants to talk about her illness, be a good listener. If she doesn’t want to dwell on the illness then find other topics you both enjoy discussing. Is your friend or loved one ok with seeing others cry and openly mourn?

Respect the patient’s choices. You might question or disagree with the options for care that the patient or their healthcare proxy have chosen, but the plan of care was decided based on the wishes and best interests of the patient.

Offer specific, tangible help. Dealing with a major illness can be overwhelming. Offering help can be a great support, just remember that it’s easier for patients and their families to say yes or no to specific offers, than to accept general offers of help. Suggestions of help include:

  • Offer to bring a meal or buy groceries on a specific day
  • Offer to take care of young children or pets
  • Take the caregiver out for a walk or to get a cup of coffee, or sit with the patient so the caregiver can take a break
  • Prepare a care package of favorite snacks, puzzle books or magazine, boxes of soft tissues and other items that will comfort your loved one.

Say Goodbye

In his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, palliative care physician Ira Byock identified the things dying people want to hear the most from loved ones: “Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.” “I love you.”

Don’t wait until the last minute. No one can predict when that last minute will come so waiting for it puts a huge burden on you.

Just talk, even if your loved one appears unresponsive. Indications are that hearing is the last sense to shut down, so even when a person appears comatose and unresponsive, there is a strong likelihood they can still hear what you are saying. Speak from the heart. Identify yourself when you enter the room.

You don’t have to speak to say goodbye. Just being there with your loved one—sitting by their bedside, reading a book or even napping—are important ways to express your love. Touch, too, is an important part of the last days and hours. Holding a hand or giving a kiss can also bring comfort and closeness between you.

You can say goodbye many different times and in many different ways. You don’t have to formally issue a goodbye and say everything all at once. You can do it over days. Don’t worry about repeating yourself; this is about connecting with your loved one and saying what you feel so you are less likely to have regrets later about things unsaid.

If you wonder what to say at the end of a visit, when it is unclear whether you will see your loved one again, try an open-ended goodbye such as “I love you. Sleep well.” Or you might go with the power of touch and simply embrace your loved one as a farewell.