Death and Dying: What To Say To Someone Who Is Dying–Part Two
Knowing what to say to the dying requires skill, courage, and wisdom. There is no way to know just how many individuals regret for the rest of their lives something that they said, or did not say, to a dying loved one. What can be most painful about losing a loved one is the finality of death. As long as a person lives, there may be a chance to say or unsay words. But that chance is gone forever when death comes.
We highly recommend “Final Conversations” by Maureen P. Keely, Ph.D. and Julie M Yingling, Ph.D. for thoughtful, practical, wise advice about this profound topic.
Listen carefully. Words can be no more than background noise if you aren’t truly paying attention. Make it a habit to try to find meaning in your loved one’s words.
Let’s say that you are visiting your favorite uncle, who is in his final days. He may want to tell you how much he loves you and what your visits have meant to him. But if you are talking and not listening, he won’t have the opportunity.
Be other-centered. Focus on what the other person needs and wants in a conversation, instead of your needs and wants. If you treat your loved one as you would like to be treated, listened to, responded to, then he/she often will do the same.
Stop talking. Once you have a reason to listen–and practice will reinforce your success–try to get comfortable with silence. After you have exchanged greetings and pleasantries, stop talking and see what develops.
Ask a question. If you allow a silence, and the dying one hasn’t spoken, you might try a question. (Keely and Yingling recommend allowing a reasonable silence, and suggest counting to at least 20.) Smile, make eye contact, perhaps hold their hand, be interested. Then, if it seems right, you can start with simple questions:” How are they treating you here? or “Can I do anything for you? “ Then move to open ended questions that allow the dying one to talk for a while, and perhaps move to topics that he/she wants to pursue. For example, you could ask “What have you been thinking about lately?” Or even make specific requests: “Can you tell me again how you and aunt Jean met?”
Questions like these show your interest in what the dying one has to say, and give the dying one a chance to get to a topic of importance.
If you ask only closed-ended questions such as, “Are you too cold with that window open?” then you will likely get only one word replies that lead nowhere. However, if the answers to your open ended questions remain brief, you may want to go a bit deeper. But again, leave your questions fairly open and permit the dying one to have some choice about how to respond. For example, “Is there anything in particular you’d like to talk about?”
Adapted and excerpted from “Final Conversations: Helping The Living And The Dying Talk To Each Other” by Maureen P. Keely, Ph.D. and Julie M Yingling, Ph.D.