September 2009

Finding the Right Words to Say in End-of-Life Situations

Author: Lynn Brooks

End-of-life issues touch us all. Yet being close to a person near death, especially a family member or friend, is one of the most difficult of situations, in particular when it comes to knowing what to say or how to act with the loved one.

At Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, our mission is to help make both the dying and their loved ones more comfortable. Whenever we hire a new staff member, I make sure to sit down with them and tell them straight up: “The first thing you must learn is how to adjust in a positive manner to being emotionally uncomfortable.”

As far as being a friend or family member is concerned, I give much the same advice. Being with someone you care about who is approaching death is almost always heart-wrenching. However, your support—whether spoken or unspoken—can be very positive for them and make a world of difference in their life.

Your presence is important
Too often I hear the excuse from friends of people near death, “I wouldn’t know what to say!” My response is: “Please don’t ever let the idea that you might say the wrong thing keep you away from a friend or loved one who is facing the end of life.” As painfully difficult for you as it may be seeing a loved one in such circumstances, it is very important for them that you are there. Dedicating your time toward a loved one who is nearing death helps ease their pain. It might also help him or her depart peacefully.

From my many years of hospice care, I have learned that the person dying instinctively knows you are probably at a loss for words. They realize you don’t have the answers to the difficult questions like: “Why me?” or “Why now?” They simply like knowing that someone who cares about them is willing to be by their side. Often just sitting with them or walking with them in silence may be the greatest gift.

That being said, one must also respect a patient’s need for “alone-time” as well. He or she may require time for themselves and their own thoughts and prayers. Also keep in mind that their deteriorating physical condition may leave them with little energy.

Being a good listener
A key factor in talking with someone who is dying is practicing the art of listening. I like to tell people: “Be present and wait. Or, ask a question and wait.” Caregivers are understandably hesitant about bringing up the subject of death, but many patients want to talk about it. Sometimes the dying person won’t bring up the subject for fear of upsetting family members, even though they want to talk about it. The best way to handle this sensitive communication is to open with a simple statement like: “I don’t want to be upsetting, but if you want to talk about anything, I’m here.” This ensures them you are available if they want to talk, but is also respectful of their wishes. If the individual is in denial or doesn’t wish to talk, please respect that as well. They just need to know that the door is open if they change their mind.

Many people near death like to reminisce about their early years in life. Sharing these happier moments may help bring comfort to their current situation. This time can be an opportunity to share and reflect on special memories and experiences. Remember, it’s okay to express emotions and feelings if they arise. Others like to be read to. Hearing a familiar voice is calming to them.

If you are a friend of the family, another way to show you care is to see how you can be of help to the primary caregiver. Assisting with errands, picking up prescriptions, cleaning the house, washing clothes, preparing meals, walking the dog are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care.

At Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, an integral part of what we do is to act as a support system for family and friends. Our goal for more than 27 years has been to help families approach the end of life as comfortably and peacefully as possible. We are a 501 © 3 non-profit organization, based on a team approach of wisdom, compassion and experience. If you are a caregiver, friend or person are coping with a terminal illness, and in need of support and advice, please call us at (843) 706-2296 or visit our website:

Lynn Brooks is executive director of Hospice Care of the Lowcountry.

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