What to Say to a Loved One Who is Dying

It can be difficult to know what to say when someone you love is nearing the end of life. Without the words to properly express these complex feelings, many shy away from the conversation altogether. This blog will help you prepare those important,  conversations with a loved one who is receiving hospice care to ensure they know just how much they mean to you.

How should I approach the conversation?

Below are some things to keep in mind as you approach a conversation with a loved one who is receiving hospice care:

  1. Remember that hospice is all about improving quality of life.
    One reason people avoid discussing hospice care with their loved one is the common misconception that this care means they’ve given up on life. In reality, hospice care helps patients and their families make their remaining time together as fulfilling as possible. People, particularly the elderly, often reach a point in the course of their illness where they’d rather focus on quality of life and enjoying the time they have with their family and friends. That being said, sometimes speaking to them about topics you would normally is a great way to start.
  2. Understand that hospice care is your loved one’s preference and support that decision.
    Another common misconception is that hospice care speeds up the process of dying, which couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, many eligible patients who choose hospice care live longer than originally expected. Focus on enjoying the moment together rather than ideas of healing, as that is what your friend or family member truly wants. The beauty of hospice care is that it gives you time to express how much this person means to you.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask meaningful questions.
    If you approach discussions about death openly and honestly, you might be surprised at how comfortable your loved one is talking about the subject. A good way to ease into this difficult conversation is to ask thoughtful, informed questions to get their perspective and understand what they’re feeling. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get your loved one to open up about their thoughts on hospice care and what they’re going through.

Are there right or wrong things to say?

Interactions with a loved one receiving hospice care can be life-changing for both the patient as well as their family and friends who will survive them. These conversations can offer a chance to make things right, gain closure, learn about family history and make new memories that you’ll both cherish. A few things that you might consider saying (depending on your relationship and situation, naturally) include:

  1. “I love you.” Ask yourself when the last time was when you said those words to your loved one. No matter if it was yesterday or a decade ago, it never hurts to say it again. It feels good to hear.
  2. “Thank you.” “Thanks for always being there for me” and “Thank you for being the loving person you are” are thoughtful things to say to someone receiving hospice care.
  3. “Please forgive me.” If you believe your loved one has any unresolved issues, it will be of relief to both of you to let those negative feelings go. You can continue living your life knowing you made peace with it.

Of course, there are also things that you might say, thinking they will provide comfort,  that might not be helpful to the patient or could actually upset them. While most of us understand what these things might be, here are a few examples of what not to say:

  • “My friend had the same illness.”
  • “Everything will get better.”
  • “Everything will be OK.”

We all want to be comforting to our loved one and sometimes, if we’re not quite sure what to say, might turn to general platitudes.  When speaking with a loved one nearing end-of-life, these types of statements could ring especially hollow. It’s best to be honest while remaining caring and sincere.  Remember too, just being there with the person and not speaking aloud may just what they need.

Tips for finding the right words

Try not to use clichés that come across as impersonal. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Let your loved one know how much you care about them and how grateful you are to have been a part of each other’s lives.

Some people with a life-limiting illness wonder less about their situation and more about how their family will handle the loss. They may think to themselves, “How is my family going to cope after I’m gone?” You can help alleviate this fear by being willing to openly discuss their concerns and reassure them that everyone will be OK. If children are involved, try to come up with a plan for their future care.

Open communication is one of the most important aspects of finding the right thing to say. Never assume that your loved one doesn’t want to, or doesn’t already, know about future plans or the severity of their condition.

Learn more about hospice care

Understanding more about hospice care may help you feel better prepared to navigate conversations around the topic. Consider reading more about the difference between hospice and palliative care as a start. Additionally, please reach out to MJHS for more information on our unique and compassionate hospice care programs.