As I write this, there are two beautiful women I know who are under hospice care. For both, ovarian cancer has brought them to this point.
The reality is we are all going to leave this earthly plane one day, and we are certainly going to experience the loss of loved ones before our own times come. Being part of the dying process for our loved ones can be both gut-wrenchingly difficult and immensely beautiful.
The question is, what do you say to someone who is dying? Just as we are often befuddled by what to say when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious disease, or we get tongue-tied and feel we said something stupid in the receiving line at a wake, thinking about what to say to a loved one at the end of life can feel incredibly challenging.
I’ve spent a bit of time with one of my friends over these last few weeks, and I’ve been very cognizant of the conversations and the words we’ve shared during our visits. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
- Ask how he or she is doing. An obvious starting point, certainly, and you might get an unanticipated answer. In my experience, there is more of an openness among people who are dying. Be prepared for potentially graphic answers. You may found out that your loved one is in pain, is not eating, has diarrhea, etc.
- Ask about other family members. This process is difficult for everyone in the family, and some are going to need an extra shoulder to lean on. You can be of comfort to that family member, or find someone who can be that comfort.
- Ask if he or she is ready. For me, this is not a question about their religious readiness for life on the other side. This is not the “do you know you’re going to heaven?” question. There’s nothing wrong with asking, but don’t badger the patient. I have less-than-fond memories of my dad, who was about to go under the knife for open heart surgery, being scared shitless by a well-meaning friend who wanted to “save” dad’s soul. Rather, this is a question about how your loved one is emotionally handling their decision and the process of dying. Again, be prepared. An answer like “I wish it was happening faster” is not uncommon.
- Ask about his or her funeral plans. I know, right? But it’s reality. Your loved one may or may not have made plans. Take this as an opportunity to help them, if they’re comfortable with help. Or, as is the case with my friend, you will know that all of those details are taken care of.
- Say “I love you.” Seriously. It really could be the last time you see your loved one. Say it.
- Say “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” If there is any unfinished emotional business, take care of it while you have the time. For your sake and your loved one’s. Once he or she is gone, there is no fixing the situation. That being said, this is not the time to open old wounds or start a new fight. Apologize if you need to.
- Bury the hatchet. If you’ve been estranged, let your loved one know it doesn’t matter anymore. Your loved one may still hold a grudge to the end, but at least try to make amends. This one is for you. When my grandfather passed away, we were estranged. He had incorrect information that he refused to let be corrected. I tried a number of things to rectify the situation to no avail. When he died, I was at peace knowing I did everything in my power. It was him, not me.
- Let them know it’s okay to go. This is a tough one to do because our nature is to want to hang on to someone for as long as possible, and our loved ones are often worried about us. That agitation can inhibit the process. Telling our loved ones it is okay to go gives them an added sense of peace.
- Get there. We’ve all heard stories of the dying person who held on until someone important to them arrived at the bedside. You never know when you might be that person. For God’s sake, go.
- Share memories. Fill the room with pictures and/or significant mementoes from your loved one’s life. These items will bring comfort, especially if he or she is away from home, and they can be the impetus for conversation. Talk about fun times you shared together. And remember that it is perfectly okay to laugh.
- Share life. Your life is still happening and odds are your loved one wants to know what’s going on. Talk about the kids, the pets, home remodeling, the big project at work. It will feel strange to talk about future events at first, but keeping your loved one informed is likely to elicit more smiles than sadness.
- Say nothing. Being there is enough. Really, it is. If you’re not comfortable saying anything, or you just don’t know what to say, don’t. Hold your loved one’s hand, tuck them under their blanket, kiss their forehead. Wordless acts of love speak volumes.
- Pray. If ever there was a situation where prayer is acceptable, it’s this. Pray for peace for your loved one and all family members and friends. Pray for safe and swift passage to the other side. Pray that your loved one will be remembered forever.
- Promise to remember them. There doesn’t have to be a “goodbye.” For many of us, that can feel too final. If you are a person of faith, you might say “Until I see you again.” Let your loved one know you will faithfully carry their memory in your heart. From personal experience, the loss of my friend John to cancer while I was in treatment continues to inspire my advocacy work and always will.
- Tell them how they impacted your life. Speaking of my friend John, as he was dying his wife encouraged people to send him messages through CaringBridge, which she read to him. He got messages from friends and family across the country. It was a beautiful way to express our love and his impact on our lives.
- Talk about those “why?” questions. For people of faith, the “why?” can serve as a wonderful jumping off point for beautiful, memorable and significant conversations for both you and your loved one about what contributes meaning to life. Neither of you has to have answers to the questions, but leaning in to spirituality and faith can be memorable and meaningful.
Special thanks to my friend and pastor, Rev. Amy Figg at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Knoxville for her guidance and input in writing this post.