When someone has received a terminal diagnosis, it’s a sensitive and traumatic time for them. Our words and actions at this point carry great weight. While it would be nice to believe that there’s no wrong thing to say and it’s the thought that counts, those close to the dying can make the experience easier or harder for them depending on what they say.
If your loved one has recently received the bad news, look to them for clues about what to say and do. Don’t be surprised if they in fact don’t want to talk at all. People facing their own passing are often relieved to not have others say anything – though they are also glad to know that they can reach out if they choose to do so. Do your best to respect what they want, but find ways to make it clear that you’re willing to offer a listening ear when they need it. Rather than fretting about what to say and whether it’s the “right thing,” put your energy into listening to and observing your loved one.
Whatever you do, avoid grand platitudes about fate or God’s will. These won’t make the person feel better, and may even make them feel that they are at fault for their illness in some way. Don’t tell your loved one that they’ll be OK – both you and they know that this isn’t really true. Don’t try to praise them by telling them how strong they are – at this time they may not feel very strong. Instead, they need to be allowed to acknowledge their fears.
Find ways to emphasize that you love them and that you’re there to help them in the way they need. Do your best to make this time pleasant and comfortable for them. This is one exception to the advice to let your loved one guide you – as far as comfort goes you should take the lead. This is the time for random acts of kindness like making them breakfast or doing their laundry for them. They may be too preoccupied to ask for help with these everyday tasks. Make sure that you follow through on any offers you make.
What gift do you give someone who doesn’t have many days left in the physical world? The gift of your time. Even sitting quietly with your loved one can be valuable to them. It sends the message that you’re there for them and that you’re willing to support them in their struggles.