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What to Say to Someone Who Is Dying

Published: 7/19/2011
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Q. A dear cousin of mine is dying of colon cancer and I’m going to visit him. I want to see him, but I’m also nervous about it. I don’t know what I should talk about. What do you suggest? 

A. This situation has become more and more common—and complex—due to medical advances. One issue involves your definition of "dying." It used to mean days/weeks/a few months to live. Today, the person may have a terminal illness that allows him to function in life (at least on good days), and perhaps even work. This period might last as long as a year or two or more.

In the first case, the person is usually in a hospital, hospice, or other facility—or at home, perhaps receiving hospice services. You can’t go wrong with a hug or taking his hand and saying, "I think of you all the time," or just "I love you," if that’s true and feels right. Then listen quietly to his reply and follow his lead. You can also think in advance of memories you share, as in, "I was just remembering the trip to Vermont. It was such a long drive, and you were the entertainment director coming up with all those word games." If you can’t think of anything, pull out the family photo album and leaf through to access memories. Better yet, bring an album with you. You can turn the pages together and reminisce. You might also say (if appropriate); "Tell me about hospice." Or ask, "How did you ever wind up in the hardware business?" Most important, try to be authentic and treat the person as you always have.

There are other options if the person is able to go out in the world at least some of the time. You might suggest an activity, such as a movie. A comedy or a film that touches on a deep interest of the patient (such as politics or sports) might be good medicine. You can discuss the movie’s pros and cons afterward. A walk in the park and/or conversation in a cafe are other possibilities. Think of open-ended questions to ask, such as "How is acupuncture working out?"

Regardless of where you talk, resist the urge to say, "How are you?" Writer Christopher Hitchens, when being treated for esophageal cancer, famously replied, "How am I? I’m dying."

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes and Eulogies. She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners. Have a question for Florence? Send her an email.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons / Mayr

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