What to Say to Someone Who is Dying

    October 15, 2012 7 Comments

End-of-life conversationWe, at eFuneral, have posted several articles and videos related to death and dying, end-of-life, and caregiving. Below are insights from grief counseling specialist, Gail-Elaine Tinker on what to say to the dying and how you can help the dying.

Cancer sucks rotten eggs. Accidents, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, addiction, and suicide, are all horrors. Death and dying is just plain awkward for those closer to their demise than the rest of us (remember, we are all on our way out at some time or another). So while I have carefully made up a list of important but generic things to say to someone who is critically ill or dying, people and words are not ‘one size fits all.’ What passes as ‘OK’ in one family is downright ‘Weird’ in another, we all have social rules and customs to mind and disease, dying, and grief complicates the entire thing.

The first thing you need to ask yourself before you dig into this list is “How well do I know the person, what is our relationship?” Some folks may be bound by blood, but don’t have the intimacy in friendship to share such difficult times up-close. Boundaries are an odd thing and many get bent out of shape about them at the end of life. I call this “Shoulding,” as in “We are siblings, and she ‘should’ let me be with her at this time, not her college roommate/ex/hairdresser… whatever!”  Knock it off!  Life is far more complex than playground era ‘shoulds.’ There is room for everyone if you can play nice. But know that relationships are as unique as people and what one person craves, the next abhors. The general rule is the one who is dying gets to decide.

What to say to someone who is dying, and how you can help the dying:

  • “I’m so sorry. How can I help?” Then listen and take notes.

This is the most essential message I can tell you:  Saying “I’m sorry” is enough.  Don’t fall weeping and expect the dying to support you. “How will I go on living without you?  How can this happen? You should have stopped smoking/drinking.” All these are horrible statements which burden the dying with your feelings; save it for your therapy. “How can I help? “ Is something you say if you mean it. If you don’t intend to come around again, don’t say it and give false hope. When you say it, LISTEN. Who else is helping? Write that down. What are the needs? Make notes. All the details may not be there initially, but over time you’ll gently figure it out. Leave your number.  From lawn work, laundry, to utility bills, to funeral planning – someone needs to assist with these tasks, and if these chores are spread out over many shoulders, the burden is lighter. Help the person sort out priorities.

  • “Are you up for visitors? What can I bring?”

The temptation to isolate is high, and if you are in the intimate circle of someone who is dying, be sure to show up and make short visits that feel normal. Of course they aren’t normal, but any excuse to drop by – postage stamps, banana bread (nutritional shake) – and have a cup of tea and chat is a welcome break from depression, nausea, and the endless thoughts or numbness. For the dying, it is an excuse to change one’s shirt, run a comb through one’s hair/wig, and splash water over one’s face, and clean up the nonsense off the sofa. It breaks up the long day. For the visitor, it is a chance to observe how things are going, any new symptoms, are they safe, do they need anything done (DO a few tasks), and that sort of thing. This is a great time to share a prayer, exchange a music cd, ask about doctor appointment rides, and make sure home health care aides are OK.

  • Send cards and notes to the sick and dying.

Remember greeting cards, the kind you write an address on and a postage stamp? They are welcome for the chronically and terminally ill. They really do cheer a person up because if someone else can bring in the mail, it is so nice to have pretty or funny cards to open with positive messages, sometimes comic strips, clippings, sports scores/stories, photos, etc  from old friends and loved ones.  Handmade by kids count. The days do drag on, and if these notes keep coming it is wonderful. They do not demand a lot of energy like the phone, email, or visitors, but are so appreciated.

  • Discuss death and dying issues.

If, and only if, you are in the inner circle of the person who is dying, please do not neglect to discuss the wishes of the person who is dying. Often folks want to ‘be positive’ until the end, and they forget to discuss the important last wishes. This information is NOT for the casual visitor, but the details of burial, ceremony, dress, and so on can be peaceful and empowering for some people in their final days. It helps them to know they will be cared for as they wish in the end. To show that you can handle such details confidently, can add to their sense of peace. If not, end of life professionals, like social workers, doctors, etc will guide you through this process.

  • Offer to assist the family.

Caregiver fatigue is real. Listening is so powerful. Can you bring in a bucket of chicken and salad and sit with the person while the family member catches a shower and a long nap?  Can you run a few loads of laundry with your own? Would a family appreciate a movie night out with a visiting nurse at home watching the person sleep? Does the family need a session with a financial adviser or attorney to review their new situation, could you cover that session? Could the family benefit with a few sessions with a psychotherapist to do ritual bonding exercises and transformative art to keep as keepsakes?  When is the last time the little kids had new shoes, jeans, or coat; that stuff goes by the wayside when someone is sick. Is their home heating oil tank full or have they been driving with a dashboard light on?  If you can help, do so.

When you do any one or more of the above for someone who is sick or dying, I want you to know that you are doing a very good thing. I will say THANK YOU now, but perhaps the sick person and the family, not necessarily rude, may not remember to do so. Remember, they are in one of the largest crises of their lives!  You may NOT be heroically remembered for having done your fine deed, so do it quietly without expectation of recognition.  This is ‘pay it forward’ territory in life – and you are supposed to do such things in the hope that the good deed will come back to you when you most need it.

What NOT to say to the dying:

  • You don’t look that bad.
  • Discuss what is ailing you, the well person.
  • You can beat this, just be positive!
  • Doctors are idiots!
  • How much you will miss them when they are gone.
  • Prayer will cure anything, just pray harder.
  • You must have been very bad in a previous life to have such bad Karma. -How many nice funerals you have been to.
  • How many people you know who have died of same illness as person.
  • Try to ‘convert’ dying person.
  • It must have been as a result of:  food, activity, job, lifestyle, religion, whatever!
  • How many people you know who have been cured in thus and so way.
  • That you know of X product Y person is selling for Z amount of money.
  • Worry aloud what the family will do without the person.
  • Tell horror stories about other people’s surgeries, deaths, and funerals.
  • Play films, TV, or music that is upsetting and explicitly about violence, death, or dying.
  • Demand apologies or amends for past incidents.
  • Can I have your stuff?
  • Can I date your wife?
  • You must get really great meds for this.


Please do not say any of those things, or discuss the topics listed above with the dying. If you do not understand why or need more clarification, consult a qualified counselor, clergy, or end-of-life specialist.

This article is part of the eFuneral Resource Center and was written by Gail-Elaine Tinker, M.S.a psychotherapist in general private practice in Lehigh Valley, PA specializing in grief, trauma, chronic pain, and adult autism. If you would like to know more about her practice, please review her website www.tinkerpsychotherapy.com or contact her directly at 610-216-4319. Those thinking about end-of-life should visit eFuneral.com for help researching, planning, and arranging a wide variety of funeral-related services.

  • mia

    Wonderful article! We need to stop being so afraid to face that this will happen to our loved ones; and to us!

    • eFuneral

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Mia. We’re glad you found this article to be helpful.

  • Donna

    Great article! I am wondering why it is not OK to say that you will miss the person when they are gone. How about, “You will be missed by so many people?”

    • eFuneral

      Donna, thanks for your comment and question. Some people think that by telling a dying individual you will miss them, you could (unintentionally) make them feel some sense of guilt over leaving you. That being said, most people want to know that they will be missed. So perhaps, you could let them know that you will be alright but that they will surely be missed.

  • Tony

    Hospice just gave my dad 2 weeks, My dad is also my best friend, in the last 6 years we have been very close and did everything together, he has gone down hill fast in the past 2 weeks, and is now just silent, I want to talk to him, but I don’t know what to say

  • NCMom

    My grandpa was just giving 6 months and I live states away. We have a regular call every Wednesday, but I feel like I need more now and wish I lived closer

  • Hattie Schenck

    Thank you so much for this well written article. I’ve been avoiding calling a family member who is dying because I didn’t know what to, or what not to, say.

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