Although we have come a long way, there still remains an aura of discomfort and awkwardness around death and dying in our culture. So much so that when we learn that our loved one is facing a terminal illness, we may shrink from them, avoid conversations and, ultimately, lose out on important, meaningful moments with them.
It is difficult to talk to someone we know is dying; it is also painful and confusing. This isn’t surprising; after all, we are exposed as entirely helpless in the face of mortality. We are also faced with our own limited lifespan as well as the fear of impending loss and pain. However, regardless of these uncontrollable feelings, it is important to reach out and offer comfort, to be close to your loved one.
It’s Not About You
Your pain is real and it is important, but when you are talking to someone who is dying, all of those feelings need to be secondary to theirs. Before spilling out how you feel and what you wish, try to hear what they have to say. Let them set the tone—they may not want to talk too deeply about what is happening, or they may have a lot to say; regardless of what you would like to discuss, give them the chance to take the lead.
The best thing that you can do is give them comfort, whatever shape that takes. Maybe it is in reminiscing or maybe it is in watching reruns of a favorite show.
You have this time with your loved one, time that you may treasure and remember for the rest of your life. Take the opportunity to talk and to listen. Don’t worry about having “things to say,” you are not required to have all the answers and in fact it is better that you don’t.
Instead of thinking up platitudes with which to placate them, spend your time telling them you love them instead. Offer them forgiveness for any past mistakes and ask them to forgive you in return. Talk to them about their wishes and discuss any end-of-life planning they may wish to finalize.
One thing that a dying person does not need is pity; allow them the respect to maintain their dignity even in this menacing time. Regardless of your relationship to them, you should not feel obligated to give advice or suggestions.
Be honest, be caring and be open—that is the best gift you can give your loved one in their most poignant time of need.