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What to Say to Someone Who is Dying (and What to Avoid)

Gabrielle Applebury
woman taking care of dying father

Many people have difficulty knowing what to say to a loved one who is passing away. While it isn't always easy to know what to say to someone who is in the process of dying, there are some principles to keep in mind.

What Do You Say to Someone Who Is Dying?

Whether you are comfortable speaking about death and dying or not, being there for your loved one can make a world of difference to them as they go through this experience. Whatever you bring up, be sure to do so with kindness and compassion. Imagine if you were in their shoes before you say something so you have a better idea of how it may be received. You may want to speak with them about:

  • Their funeral arrangements or plans: "Are you comfortable talking about your end-of-life wishes?" Follow this up with an offer of help, "I really want to make sure you have everything you want."
  • "How are you doing today?"
  • "Is there anything I can do for you today?"
  • "Is there anything you'd like to do today?"
  • "What would you like to talk about?" They may bring up their current experience, or may want to discuss a book, a movie, the news, or anything else. Just go with it, and follow their lead.
  • "How are you feeling today?"
  • "I just wanted to tell you how much you mean to me."
  • "You've been the most incredible friend and I feel so lucky to have you in my life."

You can certainly bring up how much you'll miss them and how much they mean to you, but be sure that they don't end up taking care of you. It's really important that you show up for them as they go through this.

What to Say to Someone Who Is Dying Soon

If someone is nearing the end of their life, they may or may not have difficulty communicating with you. They may also see and hear things that you are unable to. These are known as end-of-life hallucinations. Even if they are unable to convey their thoughts to you, you can still tell them how much they mean to you and offer comfort to them by saying:

  • "I love you so much."
  • "Thank you for teaching me...."
  • "I will never forget when...."
  • "My favorite memory we share....."
  • "I'm sorry for....."
  • "I hope you'll forgive me for....."
  • "It sounds like you're seeing...."
  • "It sounds like you're hearing...."
  • "Know that you are safe and I'm here with you."
  • "May I hold your hand while we speak?"

What to Say or Do if the Dying Person Is an Acquaintance

If an acquaintance tells you that they are in the process of dying, or you hear about it from someone else, keep in mind that it's okay to not know what to do or say. Saying something simple or reaching out with a gesture can look like:

  • Baking them something special.
  • Offering to be there for them if they want to talk.
  • Telling them, "I heard about what's going on and am here for you."
  • Sending a card, flowers, or food delivery with a note that says you are thinking of them.
  • Saying to them, "I am so sorry to hear about what you are going through, please let me know if there's anything I can do."

Is it Okay to Cry?

It is absolutely okay to cry regardless of how far along your loved one is in the dying process. Crying expresses to them how much they mean to you and how you genuinely feel. Pretending that everything is okay for the sake of your friend may come across as disingenuous, when in reality, the best thing to do is to be in the moment with them. Be sure that if you do end up crying that the focus shifts back to your friend's feelings so you can continue to show them that you are there to support them as they go through this.

Ways to Comfort a Dying Loved One

Aside from speaking with your loved one, simply showing up and being there for them can provide comfort and support. Keep in mind, depending on what stage they are in the dying process, they may be experiencing feelings of denial, anger, sadness, confusion, fear, and disorientation.

Hear Them Out

Death and dying can bring up a lot of anxiety within yourself, so try to just be there with them in the moment and validate their thoughts and emotions, even if your opinions or thoughts are different. Slow down and really listen to what your friend or family member has to say. Some people want to share important memories at the end of their lives and may feel comforted when someone stops to listen to a favorite story from their childhood. Others may have worries and fears they want to share. Listen without passing judgment and offer support and validation.

Talk About Death and Dying

Sometimes a person in the process of dying will want to discuss what it has been like for them to go through this. This may feel uncomfortable for some, but it is especially important that your friend or family member gets to voice his or her concerns and questions. He or she may want to talk about funeral plans, organ donation, or making a will. Listen, ask questions respectfully, and make sure they feel heard during this time.

Offer Support to a Loved One Who Is Hallucinating

Some individuals experience auditory and/or visual hallucinations which can be a completely normal part of the dying process. If they are agitated or frightened by these things, try to re-orient them to their surroundings and offer comfort by speaking in a soothing tone and letting them know they are safe. If they are comfortable with what they are experiencing, it is best not to argue with them and simply witness this part of their process.

Kissing dying mother

Follow Their Lead

It's always best to let the individual in the process of dying take the lead in terms of conversation topic and the tone of interaction. This means that you enter into these interactions or visits without an agenda and are just there for your friend or family member. They may drop hints or mention off handedly some death-related thoughts. If so, you can ask if they'd like to talk about that with you a bit more.

What to Avoid Saying to Someone Who is Dying

As you connect with someone in the process of dying, try not to:

  • Discuss your religious thoughts, especially without asking first
  • Say anything canned or corny about death- this may come across as disingenuous
  • Discuss your own beliefs about why they are dying
  • Shift the discussion to focus solely on your feelings
  • Hyper-focus on end-of-life plans
  • Discuss how you'd feel if you were in their shoes

What to Say to a Dying Friend

The most important thing to remember when talking with someone who is in the process of dying is to speak from your heart. Be sincere, compassionate, and willing to listen. Showing up for them can help them feel supported, loved, and seen during this transition.

What to Say to Someone Who is Dying (and What to Avoid)