When someone we care about is facing a serious illness or nearing the end of their life, visiting them makes a profound impact on their emotional well-being. You may wonder what words to use or words to avoid. This isn’t easy and many of us worry about saying the wrong thing. As a death doula, I spend a lot of time helping care teams learn what to say when comforting sick or dying loved ones.
I typically advise people to get comfortable with silence. The seriously ill and dying think about the entirety of their lives. This is a common ritual called a “life review.” It takes a lot of work.
When someone is reviewing their life, they’re quiet but they’re not ignoring you. In fact, when their awareness returns to the room, seeing you there reassures them. What we say at that point is vital.
The Importance of Sensitive Communication
In this tutorial, we’ll explore the importance of sensitive communication. I’ll also provide practical guidance and concrete ways to offer comfort, support, and understanding.
Don’t say, “How are you?” Say, “How are you feeling today?” or “I’m glad to see you.”
We get into the habit of saying, “How are ya?” without really thinking about it. It’s an instinctive way to start most conversations or visits. Someone living with a terminal illness may be in pain and sometimes they’ll want to discuss it while other times they’d rather talk about something else.
The best way to start a visit is to come into the room and observe for a moment. Just look at your loved one and be mindful of how they’re receiving you. Tell them you’re glad to see them. If they look interested in engaging in a conversation, ask in a meaningful way how they’re feeling today.
Don’t say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
Not everything happens for a reason. And even if there is a reason, sometimes it doesn’t matter. This still sucks. So avoid clichés or straddling someone else with your personal beliefs. You’re not saying that your loved one caused his or her illness, are you? Of course not. But they might feel responsible if you tell them it’s happening for a reason.
When someone is sharing with you the details of their illness, or how they’re living with this reality, just listen. If you have to say anything at all, perhaps it’s best to tell them you’re sorry this is happening.
People facing serious illnesses have a unique insight. They should be allowed to think out loud, process what’s happening, talk with spiritual advisors, or do anything else they choose.
Be there to listen without judgment. You’ll get your own time to review your life and beliefs, now is their time.
Don’t say, “You’re going to a better place/You’ll be with God soon.” Say, “This seems like a lot/This seems really hard.”
When learning what to say when comforting sick or dying friends, don’t make bold assumptions about a person’s faith or belief systems. You may think you know that your person believes in heaven, God, or some sort of peaceful afterlife. But don’t assume they’ve processed this situation or see it as you do. They may not yet acknowledge or accept their reality. If someone is suffering, validating that it’s hard is sometimes all they need to hear. Full stop.
Don’t say, “This is God’s will.” Say, “This is hard.”
Although some may find comfort in religion, don’t assume to know God’s will. People at the end of life go through lots of phases, including anger. And they don’t need to hear that God’s chosen them for this suffering instead of someone else. Just let them vent and agree that this is a difficult path.
Don’t say, “I know how you feel/I can imagine how you feel.” Say, “I’m here/I’m listening.”
No one ever knows exactly how another person feels, even if they are in a similar situation. Two people who both have cancer may look at their conditions differently. For that reason, it is rarely a good idea to tell someone you know how they feel, no matter what they are going through. Again, just listen. Offer empathy or a hand to hold. That’s what your loved one needs right now.
Don’t say, “You’re so strong/You’re so brave.” Say, “Do you want to talk about how you feel about all this?”
Telling someone they’re brave and strong might seem like compliments. Often times a person who’s sick or dying doesn’t feel strong or brave. They’re in a position they might not ever have wanted, and most are doing their very best. Let’s give them space to talk or not talk, without adding extra pressure that they take a heroic path. Often that’s too much pressure. Encourage open communication about their well-being, allowing them to share as much or as little as they’d like.
Don’t say, “I’m sure you’ll get better!” Say, “I’m here with you.”
Expressions of false hope usually come from people who fear thinking or talking about death. It says more about you than them. Instead, be with your loved one and walk with them through the experience. Don’t feel the need to fix it. Just connect with them and be present. That by itself is the most powerful thing you offer.
Don’t say, “You don’t look very sick!” Say, “I’m thinking about you as you go through this process.”
How is a sick person supposed to look? Illnesses present in different ways and often how a person looks is the least of their concerns. Instead of commenting on their appearance, tell them you’re thinking about them. Bring up happy, shared memories or just listen to them when they’re ready to talk.
Don’t say, “Live for today.” Say, “I love you/I’m thinking of you.”
Don’t tell them how to behave. They don’t need your advice. Most people dealing with illness don’t want to be told what to do. They have to figure this out for themselves, and they’ll have an easier time doing that with your love, support, and positive thoughts. So give them that.
Don’t say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Say, “How could I (or we) be most helpful at this time?”
Who appreciates hearing how God “gave us” our illness or disease? And lots of people have way more than they can handle. Meaningless platitudes don’t help. Instead, ask for specific ways you can be of service or support to the person you love.
Also Important: How We Say It When Comforting the Sick and Dying
Be careful when asking about ways to help your person. As far as possible, be unattached to their answer. They’ll feel reassured if they can turn to you for help and if they don’t need help, they won’t feel burdened saying no.
Don’t say, “You should try this treatment/cure I read about.” Say, “Would you like to explore different treatment options?”
Pushing unsolicited advice is overwhelming. If someone is openly considering other healthcare options, ask them if they would like your assistance with researching the topic. If yes, ask how they’d like to receive this type of information.
Don’t say, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Say, “What would be most helpful to you right now?”
Offer concrete assistance, whether it’s running errands, cooking meals, or just providing company. Be sincere without any overbearing energy. You’re supposed to be helping them. They shouldn’t feel bad if they don’t know yet how you can help.
Don’t say, “You should be positive and stay strong.” Say, “It’s okay to have moments of vulnerability, and I’m here to support you through them.”
Don’t ever pressure them to hide their true feelings. They may feel guilty if they can’t maintain a positive outlook.
Don’t say “I know someone who had it worse than you.” Say, “Your experience is unique, and I’m here to listen and support you.”
Comparing their situation to others diminishes their struggles and makes them feel unheard. Instead, validate their feelings. And listen.
Don’t say, “You’ll get through this; you’re a fighter.” Say, “I admire your strength and resilience in facing this challenge.”
While meant to be encouraging, calling someone a fighter can place undue pressure on them to “win” against their illness.
Don’t say: “I don’t know how you do it; I couldn’t handle it.” Say, “I’m inspired by you.”
Don’t make them feel isolated and as if their struggles are burdensome to others. Instead, express admiration.
Don’t say: “Let’s not talk about it; it’s depressing.” Say, “”I’m here to listen whenever you want to talk, about anything you’d like.”
Avoiding the topic of their illness entirely can make them feel isolated and unable to share their thoughts and feelings. Encourage open conversations.
Sensitivity and Compassion
The key is to be sensitive, compassionate, and adaptable to the individual’s needs and preferences. Everyone copes with illness and death differently, so offering your support in a genuine and non-judgmental way is paramount.
By avoiding hurtful statements and practicing compassionate communication, you make a profound difference in your loved one’s life during this challenging time. Remember, being there for someone often means more than finding the “perfect” words to say. Instead, your presence and genuine concern offer immeasurable comfort. If you need support, reach out and contact me today.