What to Say to a Dying Person

Talking with a terminally ill loved one about death can prevent feelings of regret that arise when important things get left unsaid. Hospice worker Margaret Bromberg, LCSW, recently offered tips to people caring for a chronically ill family members in Long Island, New York, about how to talk about death with the dying.

How to Talk to a Dying Person

Sometimes people don’t want to upset their dying family member by bringing up the subject of death. Likewise, the dying patient may not want to upset the family members by bringing it up. Patient or caregiver can actually state this fact in order to open the conversation, for example,

  • “We know that you are dying (or I know that I am dying) and I don’t want to upset you, but I’d like to talk about it.”
It is a privilege to be with a loved one at the end of life. Photo: Click, Morguefile.com

It is a privilege to be with a loved one at the end of life. Photo: Kenn W. Kiser, Morguefile.com

Sometimes it’s better to invite the dying person’s thoughts rather than to spill one’s own.

  • “I’m wondering what your thoughts are about what the doctor said; I’d be very open to hearing them.”

If caregiver or patient is scared, don’t be afraid to say so. Say,

  • “I’m scared but I’m willing to talk with you about dying.”

Then just listen. If the person is in denial or does not wish to talk about it, respect that. He or she may not be able to cope with talking about it. Just let him know that the door is open if he changes his mind.

  • “I’ll be here for you if you ever want to talk about it.”

What to Say in Response to the Dying Person’s Feelings

The dying person may be angry, resentful, scared, sad, resigned, accepting or some combination. Do not judge what the person is feeling, because that can stop the conversation in its tracks and upset the loved one.

Many people find it hard to listen to people who are dying because in our society we like to fix problems. Bromberg says it’s the, “Don’t just stand there, do something” mentality. Our natural instinct is to try to make the person feel better.

In reality nobody can fix this problem. But letting someone who is terminally ill express his or her feelings without fear of judgment does help. If the person is angry, let him express it. Do not try to talk him out of his feelings. It’s best to just acknowledge how he is feeling,

  • “It sounds like you feel angry,” or
  • “It sounds like you have some regrets,” or
  • “It sounds like you are scared.”

How to Prepare for a Conversation With a Dying Person

Become educated about the dying process so you will have some idea of what to expect. Learn how to care for a dying patient so issues that arise will be easier to deal with.

Examine one’s own first experience with and impressions of death.

  • How did you first learn about death?
  • What was your earliest reaction to it?

People often push thoughts of death out of their minds, feeling like if they think about death it will happen. Of course, this is not true and it is useful to think about death and understand one’s own feelings.

  • Have you thought about your own death or imagined how your loved ones would die?

Talking about death with the dying can be a valued experience for the dying person and for those who survive her. Inviting conversation about it and respecting what the dying person says without judgment will promote closeness.

Margaret Bromberg is a social worker with East End Hospice in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, New York.

©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved. It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work without permission from the author. However, links are appreciated and you may reproduce up to fifty words and provide a link back to this article. For other arrangement or reprints, please contact the author with your request. This article was originally published on the web in 2008.

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