It’s one of the most dreaded pieces of news we can receive—a friend or loved one is dying. How you respond to the situation can affect not only the person’s death but also your own eventual grieving process.
But few of us have much experience in being with someone who is dying. What should we say—and not say? What if the prospect of a visit seems overwhelming? Whether your loved one has months or just days to live, here’s what helps most…
PLANNING THE VISIT
Anxiety about visiting a dying friend or relative is very normal. Death can arouse uneasiness and worry about how the person will have changed—particularly if you have not seen him/her for some time.
But if you can, go ahead and visit. The fact that you care enough to overcome your discomfort will mean a great deal to your friend or relative. And the fact that you got to visit or say good-bye to your loved one before he died may help you avoid any regrets.
During visits, one of the most important messages we can convey to a dying person is a sense of what has not changed—that deep down inside, your loved one is still the same wonderful friend, beloved brother or cousin.
To maintain that sense of connection, remember that dying doesn’t change your fundamental relationship. Be who you are—don’t act differently or phony. If humor has been a big part of your relationship, don’t stop now. If you and the ill person typically talked about sports, then it’s fine to mention a recent game.
If you’re the kind of friends who got together once a month, resist the temptation to visit every other day—others may have the same idea, putting a burden on the dying person and caregivers.
To maximize your time with the person: A good rule of thumb is to increase the frequency of your get-togethers by half—for example, every two weeks instead of every three.
Ask caregivers about the frequency of visits. They will know what other visits are planned and can gauge the dying person’s condition and mood. Always call, text or e-mail the caregiver (depending on the method of contact he prefers) before you come.
If you are living with a dying person, recognize that he may become quiet and introspective and may not want a lot of conversation or communication with you. Pay attention to signals.
WHAT TO SAY
At the end of life, it’s common for the dying person to focus less on physical infirmities (assuming pain is controlled) and increasingly on emotional and spiritual concerns and worries about those being left behind.
What helps: Rather than asking, “How are you feeling?” a gentle query such as “How are things?” is often a more appropriate opening. Also, you may want to ask, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” If the person doesn’t wish to talk, don’t persist. If you don’t know what to say, you can praise the person, if it seems appropriate. “I really admire how you’re handling your illness. I don’t think I could deal with it with such dignity.”
Also helpful: If words fail you at the moment, don’t be afraid of silence. If it’s appropriate to your relationship, put your hand on the other person’s. Touch can be more eloquent than speech.
Important: If the dying person is in a phase of denial about his impending death, be compassionate and do not try to break through with the truth. For example, if your brother talks about joining you at the family beach house, there’s no need to tell him that he won’t be going. Instead, validate the feeling behind his wish. “What a delightful place! We’ve always had so much fun there, haven’t we?” You can then reminisce about the happy times you shared there.
SHOW HOW YOU FEEL
You may think that you need to put on a brave face. But the fact is, you’re sad about the person’s impending death, so you won’t fool anyone by acting otherwise. Even worse, it could leave the impression that you don’t care.
What helps: Let yourself cry. Don’t worry that if you cry the dying person will start crying, too. Perhaps he will, but there’s nothing wrong with crying together.
Important: Avoid the temptation to shelter children from these painful emotions. How else can they learn to grieve and cope with such situations later in their lives?
You can take children to visit a dying person. If excluded, they often imagine something far worse than reality. Exception: Avoid taking children to the intensive care unit (ICU). Many hospitals do not allow anyone under age 12 in an ICU, and children tend to get frightened of the medical equipment and machines.
CAN YOU FACE IT?
If you feel that you just can’t face the prospect of being with someone who is dying, stay home. Uncontrolled sobbing won’t help anyone.
If you’re not able to visit: Send cards, letters and e-mails showing that you care. Think of practical ways that you can ease the burden on the dying and the caregivers—for example, shop for food or cut the lawn. Leave a pot of tulips on the person’s doorstep with a heartfelt message written in a card. Or drop off a CD of music that you know the dying person likes.
YOUR GIFTS TO THE DYING
As most people prepare to leave the world, they look back and need to know—has my life made a difference? Whether you’re a son or daughter or friend, let the person know how he has enriched your life.
What helps: You can say: “You’ve taught me so much,” “Remember all the great times we had?” You can also put together an album of photos recalling your life together.
And contrary to one common myth, it’s fine to recognize that life will go on after the person is gone. You can tell him that his loved ones will take care of one another and that their shared memories will be a continuing source of strength.
Also: As time grows short, most people have a final need—to convey the wisdom they’ve acquired during a lifetime. Listen. You also might want to write down or tape-record these remarks.