How to Offer Words of Comfort for the Dying

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what to say to someone who is dying

As a loved one nears the end of his or her life, it’s often difficult to know what to say. There are several topics to cover with a dying loved one. You want to remember the good times, say “I love you” and say goodbye. Death is a part of life. Your health and happiness depend on your ability to confront death and move on.

How to Know Someone is Dying

Everyone dies, but no two death experiences are the same. The type of illness your loved one is experiencing, the type of medication or treatment he or she receives, and the type of care provided influences what happens during the process.

Some people seem to perk up right before they pass on. Death comes as a surprise in those cases. Others may withdraw and engage less and less with the world around them. Learn to recognize the common signs that death is near. Doing so can help you, other family members and friends prepare to offer words of comfort for the dying.

  • Changes in eating habits. As a person gets closer to death, it’s common for him or her to eat and drink less. Some people also struggle to swallow food and beverages.
  • Sleeping more. Higher levels of fatigue are common as people approach death. If you are visiting with a loved one who drops in and out of sleep, continue to speak with him or her. Although the person might not respond, he or she can usually still hear what you’re saying.
  • Changes in social behavior. Older people seem to withdraw and become less social as they become nearer to death. A formerly talkative loved one might seem shy and quiet.
  • Changes in urine or bladder control. Dying patients tend to urinate less or to have darker, more concentrated urine. Incontinence is also common.
  • Changes in skin temperature and color. It’s common for the skin to take on a bluish color within the last 24 hours of a person’s life. The skin might also feel cold to the touch. You can help your loved one stay comfortable and warm by putting sheets and blankets over him or her.
  • Troublesome or rattling breathing. Fluid buildup in the throat can lead to what’s called the death rattle. Although it can sound alarming to you, it usually doesn’t cause your loved one pain. Often, it is a sign that death will occur within a few hours.

When you’re able to recognize common signs that death, you’re able to gather around a person at the right time. You’ll be with him or her as he or she moves from this world to the next.

Preparing to Speak with Your Loved One

Few people are born knowing how to support someone who is dying. There will be a lot you want to say to your family member or friend. Preparing what to say to someone who is dying in advance will help you be sure that you don’t leave anything out.

You may also need to prepare yourself emotionally. People look and behave differently when they are near death. You might walk into your loved one’s home or room and feel as if you don’t recognize him or her.

To prepare yourself for any changes, remind yourself that the person is still your loved one. Think back on a happier time that you shared together if you are feeling overwhelmed by all that is going on.

You want to avoid having any feeling of regret or worrying that you left something out. To do that, make a list of things you want to say to the person and bring it with you. Having a cheat sheet of what to say to someone who is dying will help you overcome any feelings of discomfort you might have initially.

Along with preparing things to say to your loved one, also be ready to listen to the person. Some people are unable to speak near the end of their lives. Some can still talk and might become more talkative. You can show support to your loved one by listening to what he or she has to say.

5 Things to Say to Someone Who’s Dying

Worry that you don’t have anything grand or profound to say to your loved one shouldn’t keep you from visiting him or her. In some cases, what to say to someone who is dying can be as simple as telling him or her about what you had for breakfast or how the kids are doing in school.

1.    Talk About Your Day

In the face of cancer or another illness, telling someone about how you burned the toast or about your cat’s antics might seem immaterial. But often the only thing that matters is that your loved one gets to hear your voice. Even if you talk about the most superficial things, it’s possible for your story to comfort and soothe him or her.

2.    Talk About What He or She Wants to Talk About

If your loved one still has the ability to speak and seems to want to say something, let him or her take the reins. The person might wish to tell you something he or she didn’t feel comfortable sharing before or may simply want to remember the good times you shared.

It’s important to remember that your loved one is still a person during these final conversations. Talk to the person and share in his or her memories. Don’t talk about the person as if he or she is already gone.

3.    A Story About Your Relationship

Some people search for meaning as they get near the end of their lives. While your loved one might not be seeking meaning, it can still be comforting for him or her to have you recount a story or instance that had particular value to you.

If you’re speaking with a parent, you can share a life lesson you learned from mom or dad and how it helped to guide you through life. Giving your loved one validation will help him or her feel a sense of peace.

4.    “I Love You”

Some things are so simple, yet so profound. Don’t forget to tell your loved one that you love him or her. Even if the person can’t respond verbally, since hearing is often the last sense that people lose, it is likely that he or she will understand what you’ve said.

5.    Goodbye

One of the most difficult things for people to cope with after a loved one dies is the idea that they didn’t get to say goodbye. Even if you plan on visiting your loved one the next day, it’s important to say goodbye after each visit.

Death can sneak up on you. If having a feeling of closure is important, start to think of each visit with a dying loved one as your last visit.

This video further explores what to say to someone who is dying:

Offering Non-Verbal Support

Sometimes, being there with a dying person is worth more than saying 1,000 words. Along with sharing memories and learning how to say goodbye to a loved one, knowing how to offer non-verbal support to him or her is just as important.

There are several ways to let your dying loved one know you’re there:

  • Place your hand on his or her hand.
  • Smile at the person.
  • Sit close to your loved one.
  • Bring photographs to look at together.
  • Play a favorite song or other music.
  • Bring an old memory, such as a family quilt, stuffed animal or favorite toy.

What Not to Say . . .

It’s as important to know what not to say as it is to know what to say to someone who is dying. You might have some delicate topics to discuss, such as whether the person wants a DNR or how he or she wants to be buried.

Although you can and should bring those topics up, allow the person to state his or her wishes, without passing judgment. You love your family member or friend and want the best for him or her. Allowing the person to greet the end of life in the way he or she thinks is appropriate is the best way to do that.

It’s also important that you and other family members try to get along when visiting a dying relative. You might have had disagreements with a sibling or cousin in the past. But your parent’s or other relative’s deathbed isn’t the place to bring them up. Try not to trash talk others with your loved one and try to keep the conflict outside of the room.

Being there for your loved one is critical in their final days and hours. Talk about their life, tell them you love them, and remember to say your goodbye.

Have you lost a loved one? What did you say to him or her in their final hours? Let us know in the comments below.

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