What to Say to a Person Who is Dying

At the end of my talk, an elderly man at the back of the room raised his hand and said,  “Yeh, I just found out a good friend is dying.  I want to call him, but  I can’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hi. How are you?’  He’s dying; that’s how he is!  What do I say?”

Most people are ill prepared for conversations that follow a dire diagnosis.    The fear of saying the wrong thing pulls against the desire to reach out and help.  Many people make what they believe is the safe choice, and keep their distance; in reality, isolation makes things worse.

Here are some safe ways to reach out to a person with cancer, a progressive illness or at the end of a long life, when words really count.

If you run into someone who surprises you with news about their medical condition:

Do say:

  • I don’t know what to say.
  • Wow.  That’s big news. 
  • How can I help?

Don’t say:

  • I know someone who had the same illness.
  • I know just how you feel.
  • I don’t know what I’ll do without you.

If you hear the news from a third party and you want to reach out:

Do say with words and actions:

  • You’re not alone. I’m here.  Find out the best way to connect, whether it’s personal visits, phone calls, notes or email.
  • Thank you for being a good friend to me.  Offer specific examples of when they made a difference, and remind them of their qualities you admire.
  • You made a difference in my life and in the world. Offer specific examples of how and why the world is a better place.
  • Something today reminded me of you. This is often a great way to begin a conversation.
  • I’m sorry. All wounds can heal.
  • I love you. Dr. Gary Chapman describes 5 love languages: words, gifts, acts of service, quality time and touch.  While we tend to speak our native love language, your love is best received when you use the recipient’s language.

While laughter is the best medicine, use humor with caution. It can backfire.

If you get home, and fear you have said the wrong thing

Pick up the phone or a pen and say: “My intention is to be a good friend, but I’m new to circumstances like these. I want to help, and fear my words made things worse.  If so, I’m sorry.”

Sometimes you can ask, “What’s the most helpful thing for you to hear?”

The most important things

Bring your presence, your willingness to listen and your warm smile.  Even though this is a conversation, remember that your main job is to simple be there and to listen.

© 2015. Vicki Rackner MD.  All rights reserved.