By Judy K. Underwood, Ph.D.
Sadly, every one of us will at some time in our lives have a loved one or a friend who is terminally ill. Understandably, few will actually be prepared for this situation.
When talking to someone who is terminally ill, people tend to offer meaningless platitudes or will even say things that could be hurtful. They likely don’t mean to be hurtful, but they often just don’t know what to say. Talking to an individual or family member under these circumstances may be the most difficult conversation you will ever experience.
I am often asked: “What do you say to someone who is dying?”
My answer is simple, “Listen, be present and express caring.” While it’s important to know what to say to someone who is terminally, it is equally important to know what not to say.
Here are twelve things not to say – and to say – when someone is dying.
1) Don’t tell a story about someone else who had a life-threatening illness. While it may be tempting to talk about a similar situation, don’t bring it up. The best thing to say is: “I’m so sorry. Tell me how you’re doing.” You might take the person’s hand. Listen intently. This will show you truly care and you are comfortable being with them.
2) Don’t talk about extraneous things — your new car, the weather, a project you’re working on. If they want to talk about those things, they’ll bring them up.
3) Don’t talk about yourself and what’s going on in your life. Give your loved ones the chance to talk and share their feelings. Learn to be comfortable with silence. The best gift you can give is a “compassionate presence.”
4) Don’t pretend the person isn’t sick by changing the subject or by staying away. They need to know you care about them and staying away is hurtful. Don’t worry about saying or doing “the right thing.” Just be there.
5) Don’t talk about religion or offer religious sayings — unless they say them first. Statements like “it’s God’s will,” or “she’ll be in a better place,” are certainly not helpful.
6) Don’t reference the person’s age. “She died too young” or “he’s 89 and lived a long life” isn’t relevant to someone who’s dying. No matter who you are talking with, the most important thing you can do is listen, be present and care.
7) Don’t ask how long they are expected to live. No one can answer that question and it only invites needless and hurtful speculation.
8) Don’t whisper or go to a different room to discuss the patient, the disease or the funeral. Patients can often sense these kinds of conversations are occurring. Remember, they are a living human being until the moment of death.
9) Never say “there’s no hope.” All humans need hope. There might be some remote hope for a cure, or hope that a person will die peacefully.
10) Don’t be silent because you’re trying to be strong, brave or selfless. It’s okay to cry or to say you’re angry or sad.
11) Ask their spouse or partner how they are doing or if they want to talk about what’s going on? Then be prepared to listen.
12).”People who need help are often reluctant to ask for it. If you want to help, you should just do it. Bring food for the family, or bring along an uplifting or funny movie to watch.
No matter how well we eat or how often we work out, none of us can avoid death.
Nor do we have the power to stop someone we care about from dying. We do, however, have the power to show our love and caring.
By being “compassionately present” for a dying person and the family, we help to create an environment where people feel acknowledged, listened to, and honored.
Judy K. Underwood, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and life coach in Fort Collins. She has helped thousands of people to clarify their values and to live more meaningful lives. She is the author of “Dying: Finding Comfort and Guidance in a Story of a Peaceful Passing.”