What do you say to someone dying of cancer?

Home/Caregiver ResourcesEssential Words of Comfort for a Dying Loved OneBy Merritt WhitleyApril 26, 2020Share this article:Knowing how to comfort a dying loved one is challenging a

What do you say to someone dying of cancer?
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Essential Words of Comfort for a Dying Loved OneBy Merritt WhitleyApril 26, 2020Share this article:

Knowing how to comfort a dying loved one is challenging and heart-wrenching. Whether you feel pressure to come up with the right words, or youre not sure where to begin, your feelings are normal. Fortunately, there are things you can say or write to help you and your loved one feel more at peace.

Meaningful conversations to have with your loved one

When talking to your loved one, focus on their needs. Everyone is comforted by different things. Small gestures, such as holding their hand or rubbing their back may feel relaxing or comfortingto some.Others may find solace in tangible items, such as photo albums or mementos.

One of the most important concepts in the field of grief and loss is that people drift in and out of the awareness of dying, says Kenneth Doka,a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, and professor emeritus of gerontology at the graduate school of The College of New Rochelle. Sometimes they do talk about it, sometimes not. The dying one should control the agenda. Dont force conversations on them.

When your loved one feels ready to talk, the following suggestions can be comforting ways to begin a conversation:

  • Ask how theyre doing
    Check in with your loved one. Discuss their feelings, thoughts, concerns; talk about their day or other topics they suggest.
  • Ask what they need
    Remind your loved one that youre here to help. If they have particular wants or wishes, try to ensure that theyre carried out.
  • Let them know youre there
    No one should feel alone, as these feelings can create unhealthy stress and excess sadness. Its important to let your loved one know that youre there for them  reassurance is key.

Dont forget to say, I love you

Sometimes all it takes is three words to give someone the greatest feeling of comfort. During these uncertain times, dont forget to make your feelings known.

We all express love differently, so whether you express it best verbally or through drawings, cards, or letters, simply let them know theyre loved and cared for.

Dying people typically want to hear (and say) four things, writes Dr. Ira Byock,professor of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in his book The Four Things That Matter Most:

  • I forgive you.
  • Please forgive me.
  • I love you.
  • Thank you.

If any of these seem fitting  whether you need to make peace, forgive, love, or simply thank them for anything theyve done  remain open to different conversations.

Write words of comfort in a letter

Sometimes its better to show rather than tell. Reflect on the happy times you shared with your loved one, even if it was many years ago. Recount old stories that may inspire laughter or the feeling of a life well-lived.

People often approach death by making sure their life had significance, says Doka. Have conversations about the things theyve learned, the legacies theyve left, the memories you have of them. Help them feel like they were important.

What to write to a dying loved one

As experts like Doka note, when people are about to die, one of the things they cherish most is the feeling that they mattered, and that they were important to someone that they were important to you. Here are some examples of how to begin:

  • Thank you for the
  • I will never forget when we
  • You are the reason I learned to appreciate
  • Ive been thinking of you. I remember when
  • Without you, I would have never discovered
  • I am so grateful that you taught me the importance of

Encourage loved ones to share

Everyone approaches their mortality differently. Some will find it important to mend relationships with family or friends, while others will prefer to focus onfinding ways to remember accomplishmentsor airing out old regrets.

Either way, its important to give your loved one a chance to open up and process what theyve experienced, as well as whats to come.Now can be the best time to talk about memories, share stories, or discuss lessons learned.

Here are several questions to ask your loved one before they die:

  • What are the most important lessons that life taught you?
  • What are your favorite memories?
  • What legacies do you want to leave behind?
  • What experiences have been the most precious?
  • If you could relive a moment all over again, what would it be?

Be honest, kind, and open

Theres no perfect or easy way to navigate these moments or conversations. Above all, do your best to remain authentic, supportive, and understanding. When talking to your loved one, just remember that its OK to:

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  • Admit you dont have all of the answers
  • Not understand why this is happening
  • Cry and express your emotions openly
  • Be silent  sometimes the best words can be no words

Things to avoid saying to someone who is dying

Open conversation or not, there are some thoughts one should generallyavoid saying to someone who is dying.

  • Dont give false assurances
    This can undermine trust and add unnecessary anxiety into a situation that is already difficult enough.
  • Dont force a conversation
    Be patient with your loved one. If theyre not ready to talk, give them time to process their feelings and emotions.
  • Dont force religion if your loved one is not religious
    If your loved one is not spiritual, be respectful and mindful of their beliefs.

Prepare to say goodbye to a senior loved one

In many cases, a loved one dies suddenly due to an accident, heart attack, or other event. Sadly, there is little or no time to prepare or say goodbye. But with terminal illnesses like cancer, you can talk about end-of-life issues over months or even years. Yet, because we often dont know what to say, we may miss out on opportunities to connect deeply with our dying loved one and have conversations well remember and appreciate for years or even decades after theyre gone.

In addition to having meaningful conversations, its also important to have your loved ones affairs in order, according to Brian Carpenter, psychological and brain sciences professor at Washington University in St. Louis. In an interview for theAmerican Psychological Associationhe suggested asking the three following questions to help eliminate end-of-life stress regarding:

  1. Finances
    Ask where theirimportant financial documents(end-of-life instructions, wills, life-insurance policies, etc.) are located so they can be organized, stored, and carried out correctly by the right person.
  2. Funeral or service
    What kind of arrangement do they prefer? Who do they want to be involved, or who do they want there? Is there anything they dont want?
  3. Location
    If theyre given a choice, do they prefer to be at home, a different residential setting, or in the hospital?

As difficult as it can be to have these discussions, itll make it easier to move forward so that youre able to focus on the present with your loved one.

Make peace with yourself and your loved one

Dont forget tonurture yourself during this time, too. Caregivers or family members who need support through a loved ones death, and the bereavement process, may find it most helpful to turn to others who have been through a similar experience. Grief counseling or therapy can also be positive avenues to pursue when you need professional advice or someone to talk to.

Saying goodbye to your loved one will never be easy. However, staying prepared, asking questions, and having open conversations can help you both find a sense of peace and much-needed comfort in the end.


AuthorMerritt Whitley

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