Eight Tips for Talking to Someone Who is Dying

When someone is dying, it can leave you feeling speechless; unsure of how to approach the situation whether with a loved one or an acquaintance. While it can be difficult knowing how to provide the best support during such a difficult situation, talking with someone who is dying is beneficial to both parties involved. With that, here are 8 tips for talking to someone who is dying.

Key takeaways:
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    A majority of people express a desire to discuss the end of their life plan with loved ones and doctors, but a majority of people also fail to do so.
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    Opening up the lines of communication and expressing your feelings with them during the end of their life can be beneficial for both parties involved.
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    Let your person lead the conversation. You are there to show your support and love without a personal agenda.
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    Ask before discussing difficult topics and refrain from sharing your personal religious or spiritual beliefs unless asked.
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    Show your emotions but also seek support for your emotional needs during this time so as not to burden the person who is passing.

1. Find Some Conversation Starters

A majority of people say that they’d like to discuss the end of their life and plan for what will happen with their loved ones and doctors, however, a majority of people also do not end up having these conversations. In an age denying society, we may find ourselves dancing around the topic of death and avoiding its discussion. Therefore, it may be necessary to start such discussions with someone who is dying.

It’s okay to begin the conversation, so long as you adhere to the rest of the tips to ensure that you aren’t discussing topics that the other person isn’t ready to face or feels offended by. They may want to talk about something serious, or something that is surface level, or tied in with their personal interests. Whatever it is, let them lead the way.

2. Let Them Take the Lead

Once you start the conversation, let the other person take the lead. It’s their last moments of life, and while it’s likely difficult for you, imagine how they feel. Show empathy and support and ask before you discuss difficult topics such as end-of-life plans or funeral arrangements. The same goes with discussing religion or spirituality. While it can be comforting to discuss such topics before death, it truly depends on the individual, so unless they ask you or bring up the topic, refrain from discussing your personal religious or spiritual beliefs.

3. Be an Active, Attentive Listener

Offering a supporting ear and your presence, is often all the support that is needed during such times. Truly listen and attempt to understand what the other person is going through. Reflect back to them what you hear them saying and show genuine interest. Try to learn about their illness if they’re suffering from a medical condition. Assure them that you’re there with them.

It is sometimes common for a person to experience audio or visual hallucinations near the end of life, especially if diagnosed with dementia. Try to understand what they are hearing or seeing if they express such instances to you. Let them know that they are not alone and assure them they are safe.

4. Show Affection and Use Physical Touch

This is a time when you should refrain from holding back your emotions, as you do not want to seem ingenuine. Show physical affection with hugs, arm rubs or ask if you can hold their hand. Nonverbal communication is a very powerful way to show your support and care for a person.

This is a time when it’s appropriate to express your emotions, especially the positive emotions you have for the person. Tell them what you love most about them, thank them for the lessons they’ve taught you, and when appropriate, tell them that you love them. Do not make the discussion about you and your emotions, but if tears start to well up, do not try to hold them back. It is okay to cry. Holding in your emotions will seem insincere. It’s also disenfranchising to yourself and can be unhealthy. It may be beneficial to find professional support for yourself during this time as well.

5. Don’t Tiptoe Around the Topic of Death

It is okay to talk about death and dying during this time, just don’t overly focus on it. Death is a normal part of life that we all must face, and the best thing we can do for a person is to be there for them as they face this transition. While it is always good to ask first, finding ways to bring it up so that your person feels comfortable discussing the topic can be very beneficial for both parties involved, especially if you are close. Everyone has their own take on their life and on their death. Some may approach it with humor, and while it can feel uncomfortable at times, show your sincerity and be open to allowing for some lightheartedness. With that being said, do not bring up the topic of death in a joking way unless the other person first leads with such an approach.

6. Reminisce and Discuss the Past

Sharing memories can be a very rewarding and healing experience. Share your favorite memories of them and ask about memories they have that do not necessarily include you. Going on a trip down memory lane can help bring closure and acceptance. If there is anything unresolved in your relationship, this is not a time to rehash it. Rather, ask for their forgiveness over any hard feelings from the past, and tell them that you forgive them for any hard feelings on your end. Thank them for their life’s work and the legacy they are leaving behind.

7. Verbally Express Your Support

You may not always know how to be supportive during this time, but there are some things that you can say to verbally show your support, so long as you follow through on your end. Ask questions such as:

  • Is there anything I can do for you?
  • How are you feeling today?
  • Is there anything that you need or would like?
  • Is there anything that you want to do today, or in the near future?
  • What would you like to talk about?

8. Write Down What You Want to Say

Not all communications have to be shared verbally. Depending on your situation and relationship, you can always write out what you want to say and send a letter or a card. You may also want to send flowers or deliver a meal with your note. During the end of life, some people want to be showered with love from those they cherish most. This can come in many forms and having these physical reminders around them during this time can be very comforting. This should also be followed up with your physical presence when possible and appropriate.

Talking about death isn’t always easy, and our society tends to avoid the topic. This can make talking to someone who is dying especially difficult. With some adherence to the tips above, paired with a bit of empathy and support, you can open the lines of communication with someone in your life who is dying, heal old wounds and show your support during the end of their life. This is an act that has been found to be beneficial for both the person experiencing the end of their life as well as the loved one they are talking with.


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