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3 Tips on How to Talk with Someone Who Is Dying

By Jane Duncan Rogers May 08, 2021 Caregiving

Sylvia was becoming more and more frail. It was clear that, though in good spirits, her body was nearing the end of life. She kept having visits to the hospital and had recently had a fall which had precipitated one of these.

As women 60 and over, we will often find ourselves to be the companion of a parent, family member or close friend who is coming towards the end of their life. This experience can range from downright awkward to a beautiful connection and anything in between.

One thing that is important to know is what to say when someone is in the process of coming towards the end of their life. Do we ignore the fact? Do we speak bluntly and matter-of-factly of it? Is there a balance in between? And what if the person themselves does not want to talk at all?

These questions and more are addressed in my book Before I Go: The Essential Guide to Creating A Good End of Life Plan. I’ve taken out three important tips to share with you on coping in this kind of situation.

Ask Them How They Understand Their Situation

Do you know how your friend or loved one is taking the situation? Asking is the obvious thing to do, but we often overlook to do so, being distracted by the medicalization of dying and death.

The more common situation is when a person is told what is wrong with them, and is then left with assumptions as to what this means for them.

Most often the assumption has to do with keeping the patient alive – sometimes at seemingly all costs – which can often get in the way of what that person may actually want. As a relative or friend, you may be in a better position to simply ask “What do you understand is happening to you?”

Back in 2014, I asked that of a friend who was dying. She said she knew she was coming to an end, and she accepted that, but she wanted her body to get a move on – she was finding the slow drawn out nature of her death to be quite a challenge.

She was also quite clear she wanted a certain medication to be stopped, and another started. Finally, she told me she had said all that needed to be said, and that she was ready to go. This conversation helped me to be with her during this time.

Be Willing to Accept What Is Happening to Them

It can often be the case that family members are the ones who are most distressed about their loved one dying. Hence, ironically, sometimes the one who is dying ends up comforting the one being left behind.

It can really help a dying person if you are able to acknowledge anything they want to say, accepting it without denial.

This means you will have to come to terms with it yourself, putting their needs ahead of yours. It’s not uncommon for those who are closest to the dying person to actively want them to die.

I remember simply wanting my late husband to be out of pain, and free from a body that just was not working any longer. I knew it would be difficult for me without him, but when you love someone, you don’t want them to be suffering, even if it means it will be harder for you.

Listen for the Metaphors

Often, a dying person will ‘give a message’ to a close loved one, in such a way that only that person can understand it. Often, it is a message demonstrating their understanding of what is happening.

Because I had read lots of such stories, I was very aware when Philip told me he wanted to watch what had been his favourite TV show. By this time, he had been in the hospital for six weeks, and had been told there was nothing more that could be done for him.

He was too ill to be moved, so we knew the end was coming soon. He said he wanted to watch Countdown, a popular British programme focusing on numbers and word games.

Wanting to watch TV at all was very unusual as he hadn’t requested this for any of the previous weeks. But when I heard that he wanted to watch Countdown, I knew he was telling me that he was ‘counting down’.

I found this to be very comforting – the fact that I knew he knew what was happening helped me to be calm for the next couple of days as he became weaker and weaker, less awake and unable to speak.

This is a time for tenderness, open hearts and respect shown to all concerned. All of this is made easier when we are able to talk honestly and openly about dying, about death and about grief.

It is only when those topics are forbidden in some way, or that we are frightened of them, that problems arise.

Naturally, conversing in this way is part of a good end of life, and part of any plan that is made for that end. I go into this in much more depth in the book, inviting you to start conversations now about this subject, regardless of whether you are caring for someone who is dying or not.

The more we become comfortable with this kind of conversation, the easier it will be to accept what is the one thing that will happen to us all.

Have you been in the situation of talking to someone you love who was dying? What advice can you give to a woman in our community who wants to have a conversation with someone they love who is dying? Please share your wisdom with us in the comments below.

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The Author

Jane Duncan Rogers, author of Before I Go: The Essential Guide to Creating a Good End of Life Plan, is founder of not-for-profit They run an online Licensed End of Life Plan Facilitators training program, and provide products and courses to help people make a good end of life plan.

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