Recently I was asked by one of my buddies in an online business group, “What should I say to someone who has a terminal stage illness?” This wasn’t the first time someone had asked about how to talk to those about to die. Generally I keep the focus here on your death, but we don’t live in a vacuum free of death. The more comfortable we are with the death of others the easier it is to acknowledge our own mortality. So what do you say?
The key thing is to simply talk and listen. About anything.
One of my favorite death educators, Stephen Jenkinson, helped me see the idea in a new light. He related that being with a person who is dying is similar to spending time with someone who is a new parent. For the parent, every moment of their life is about this new baby. If you were talking with them you wouldn’t ignore their newfound parenthood status or their child. You also wouldn’t focus solely on that either, knowing they are likely hungry for conversation that does not involve diapers, baby toys, and problems sleeping. So yep, in an odd way, treat someone who is likely to die soon, like a new parent. Be open to what they want to talk about but don’t avoid the reality they are in.
Here are a few guiding suggestions that have helped me:
- Ask how they are feeling *right now*, keep the time frame brief to focus their thoughts and not overwhelm
- Share happy memories
- If the children in your life are comfortable talking ask them to join you and ask them to share too
- Offer to get them something to make them more comfortable like water, a treat, or a blanket
- Bring music or photos and enjoy the memories together
- Talk about the future, especially that of children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews
- Address unresolved conflict and/or offer forgiveness, this may be the last chance
- Briefly, positively, and with the focus on their emotions
If they are non-responsive, still talk. Assume that they can hear you. People who have been near death and come back note that even when they couldn’t do anything they could still hear everything around them.
Remember to reach out and touch the person, even if just for a few moments.
And let’s not forget…we are all “terminal”.
Want to use this article in your e-zine or blog? Feel free to do so.
Be sure to include this as well:
Kel McBride, MLS, CEOLS, also known as the Lively Death Lady is a death and dying educator. She supports people in making informed decisions about their death that are in sync with their values. From health care to legacy, McBride makes the morbid intriguing and light-hearted, with amusing examples and details of lesser-known options. Her clients get their documents in order, have quality conversations about their wishes with friends and family – and also find a new focus on LIVING. She primarily works with people who are younger & healthy, people who believe their death is in the distant future. For more information or to be added to her EXPIRATIONS INSPIRATIONS blog email email@example.com or visit clearlydepart.com