How to Support a Terminally Ill Person

8503657466_3dd84bd361Death continues to be both a touchy and tricky subject. It is however, an inevitable fact of life. Sometimes when we deal with death, no matter how prepared we believe we are, it hits like a massive, unexpected wave. This happens particularly when faced with a terminally ill person.

Whatever the cause of the person’s illness is, what matters is to know how to deal with a terminally ill person. Each family has varying coping styles as well as various ways to address it. Remember that there is no hard and fast rule here. What’s important is that the dying does not feel alone but only feels loved and cared for. Furthermore, it’s also essential that those that will be left behind by the terminally ill person know how to pick up the pieces afterwards.

If you’re currently at a loss on what to do, what to say and how to behave around a dying person, then allow us to help. Below are tips on how to support a dying person.


What to Say to Someone Who is Dying

With the help of grief counselors, doctors and experts, we’ve compiled on some of the best things you can say to a terminally ill person.


“What are you thinking about?”

Listening is key to communicating with a dying loved one. Remember to never say anything insensitive, judgmental and something unrealistic. It’s best to let them vent out. “As a caregiver, you can ask, ‘What do I need to know about you as a person to give you the best care possible?’” says Marty Tousley, a Grief Counselor. Brian Elster, a Chaplain with Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurse Association  agrees. “Let patients identify and talk about the things that they consider important,” he says.


“What would you like to talk about?”

At this point, you want them to remember only the best memories they’ve had in the past. “People often approach death by making sure their life had significance,” says Dr. Kenneth Doka, Ph.D, Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America and Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle. “Have conversations about the things they’ve learned, the legacies they’ve left, the memories you have of them. Help them feel like they were important.”


“I love you”

This has to be the best thing you can tell a dying person. There’s no greater feeling than that of being loved after all. “Connecting at that level has power to convey openness, respect, affection and commitment,” Elster says. Marty Tousley agrees, pointing to the book The Four Things That Matter Most, by Dr. Ira Byock, professor of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. Dr. Byock writes that dying people typically want to hear (and to say) four things: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”


What NOT to Say to Someone Who is Dying

Here are a few things you should never say to someone who is close to death. The last thing you want is to give the person false hope.


  • “You can beat this! Miracles happen.”
  • “When does your treatment finish?”
  • “Let’s catch up!”
  • “I know it doesn’t compare to..”
  • “Everything happens for a reason”


Other Tips to Support the Dying

Now that you have a better idea on what to say and what not to say, here are a few things to remember as you spend time with the person.

  1. Always follow the dying person’s lead. Remember that you are there to offer support, a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. Never make that person feel that you are impatient during conversations. Let them take their time and pace. Ultimately, they are holding the reins.
  2. It’s the best gift you can give to a person who is facing a terminal sickness, aside from your time. This person has a lot of thoughts and feelings that s/he may not know how to express properly. That’s why it’s best to simply let the person talk when they feel like it.
  3. Ask questions. Don’t make it hard on yourself by second-guessing what this person wants or needs to do. They have limited time and the best you can do is to ask how they want to live what’s left of it. Ask them, as long as they are willing to talk about it.
  4. Don’t impose opinions. Again, the dying is the one holding the reins. Try your best not to impose your opinions. Phrases like “Have you tried..” or “You should..” are far from comforting as you think.
  5. Just be there. The greatest gift you can give is your time. As much as you can, be there for the person.