How to Say Good-bye When Someone You Love Is Dying

Regrets and Lessons From Grieving Survivors
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Saying good-bye to a dying relative or friend -- what to talk about, when, and how -- doesn't come naturally to most adults. The irony: All such conversations ask of us, ultimately, is what people appreciate hearing at any time of life: words of candor, reassurance, and love.

Below, those who've been through the experience of saying good-bye share what felt right to them -- and what they wish they'd done differently.

Lesson #1: Don't wait until the last minute.

It's hard to say good-bye, but putting off meaningful conversations is perhaps the number-one source of regret. Time and again, families ask Massachusetts hospice nurse Maggie Callanan to tell them exactly when the final hour is approaching, so that they can time their good-byes. This is dangerous, she says, because it's nearly impossible to predict the final breath. "Dying people have the uncanny ability to choose the moment of death, and it's not uncommon for them to spare those they love the most or feel protective of by waiting until those people leave the room," says the author of Final Journeys: A Practical Guide for Bringing Care and Comfort at the End of Life , who has witnessed more than 2,000 deaths.

"I felt cheated because I was so determined to be there with her -- and she died when I ran out to use the restroom," says a North Carolina man of his mother's death. "I wish I'd spent less time focused on making sure she wouldn't die alone, and more time on telling her what she meant to me."

Dying people want to hear four very specific messages from their loved ones, says palliative-care physician Ira Byock, author of The Four Things That Matter Most : "Please forgive me." "I forgive you." "Thank you." "I love you."

"Ask yourself: Is there anything critically important that would be left unsaid in our relationship if either of us died today?" says Byock, who's also director of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. "It's not as if anything you say is wasted if the person continues to live awhile."

Lesson #2: It's OK, even comforting, to let on that you know the end is nearing.

Realize that the dying person usually knows what's happening, Callanan says. "When those in the room don't talk about it, it's like a pink hippo in a tutu that everybody's walking around ignoring. The person who's dying starts to wonder if nobody else gets it. That only adds stress -- they have to think about others' needs instead of dealing with their own."

It helps to reassure the dying person that you understand and are ready; in a way, you're granting the person permission to set aside the troubles of this world. That's not to say you need to use direct language about death. The dying often use symbolic language that indicates preparation for an imminent journey or change, Callanan says. Especially common is talk about travel, preparing for a trip, or seeing a particular place, "as if they have a foot in two worlds."

One 49-year-old North Carolina woman's mom, in the hours before she died, was worried about getting on the right plane and kept saying, "Let's go!" Had the woman and her siblings known to expect this sort of thing, she says now, she'd probably have been less likely to think her mother was losing consciousness and more inclined to meet her words with encouragement for "safe passage." "Nearing death awareness" (as the phenomenon of saying and seeing unusual things on one's deathbed is known) is seldom caused by medications or dementia, research shows.

Lesson #3: Follow the dying person's lead.

If the person talks about impending death either directly or indirectly through metaphor, go along. Don't correct the person ("No you're not dying." "But dear, we're not going on a trip today"), Callanan advises. "It's like trying to argue with a woman deep in full-blown labor," she says. A helpful response: "Tell me more."

Expressing anxiety about finishing certain tasks is akin to that did-I-turn-off-the-stove worry we all feel before going on a trip, she says. Follow the metaphor with reassurance: "You've done a good job; you're all set."

Sometimes the person may ask, "Am I dying?" as a way of gauging your feelings. Instead of attempting to play God with a yes or no answer, reflect the question back: "I don't know. How are you feeling?"

Others refuse to directly discuss death. Jo Reichel's dad was one, despite being recommended for hospice more than once as his heart failed. "Then he told my mom he had to die by August 18 because the girls (his daughters, who are both teachers) had to go back to work," says the Royal Oak, Michigan, mom of three. "On August 11, at 1 a.m., he summoned all his children and grandchildren and spent the next two hours speaking privately to each of us. He died at 6:30 a.m. He knew, and I'm so glad we followed his lead."

Lesson #4: Truth is good -- but so is the little white lie.

"I wish I'd been less direct," says Elle, a thirtysomething consultant. When her mother, dying of lung cancer in Pennsylvania, asked her if she and her brother had reconciled after a long feud, she replied, "No, not really. Things are still rocky."

"In retrospect, I wish I'd said something like 'We're working on it,'" she says. "I think she was sewing up loose ends and wanted to know her children would go back to liking each other."

Being reassured that their loved ones will fare well in their absence helps people feel they can go peacefully, hospice workers say. It's common to seek reconciliation with or between other people, with God or the universe, or within themselves. They often ask directly about particular relationships or express a desire to see someone they've been in conflict with themselves.

One Florida woman who was advised by a hospice worker to let her dying husband know she was OK with him leaving her snapped, "But I can't. I don't feel OK about it." The professional then offered her alternatives that felt supportive but easier to say: "You look tired, sweetheart, please don't worry about me." "You've been such a fighter. If you need to rest, it's OK." "I understand what's happening and it makes me so sad, but I'll be all right."

Or you could talk about the person's accomplishments or legacy: "I'm so proud to be your sister when I think of all the things you've done." "We don't like what's happening to you, but you've shown us how to stick together and be OK." Help your loved one see that he or she made a difference in the world or within a particular family, which satisfies the human need to feel our lives had meaning and purpose.

More lessons on saying goodbye

Lesson #5: Keep talking even if you're not sure you're being heard.

"My granddad was in a coma, and I felt I never got to tell him I loved him," says a 38-year-old Atlanta engineer. "Later someone told me he probably could have heard me, and I've kicked myself ever since for keeping quiet."

"Hearing is the last sense to leave the room, many studies show," says Sherry E. Showalter, a hospice social worker in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and the author of Krumpled Kleenex: Stories of Heartache and Healing . That's why you should always assume that a person who's unconscious, in a coma, or seems otherwise unresponsive can hear you, she says. "Say what's in your heart."

You may even get a reply. One family held the phone up to the ear of their grandmother, who'd been fading in and out of consciousness for days, so a son who was overseas and unable to travel could speak to her. Although she never regained consciousness, she faintly pressed her daughter's palm when she heard her son's voice. She died three hours later.

Lesson #6: Try to stay present -- don't get ahead of yourself.

Survivors report that each precious moment can feel emotionally charged -- but overthinking this enormity can, ironically, dilute your ability to fully experience those moments.

At her much-loved father's bedside, Philadelphia writer Lise Funderberg began to notice herself trying to mentally record and then hang onto touching interactions as she was experiencing them. "I was hyperaware that every day could be his last day, so I'd get preoccupied thinking, 'Was that the last time he'll ever call me 'honeybaby'?'" recalls the author of Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home . She wishes she'd been able to turn off her "recorder brain" more in order to simply be with him in the moment.

Lesson #7: Trust your instincts, not "the rules."

Modern American culture has developed an odd code of conduct about how to say good-bye, Callanan says. One common expectation, for example, is that people should be somber. The problem: these beliefs simply aren't applicable to every situation.

Don't let anyone tell you there's a "right" way to behave. For some people, for example, jokes and obliviousness are the right tone right to the end. "I don't feel there was anything left unsaid, so I just chattered about me and my family as if she weren't sick," says New Jersey account manager Dawn Barclay of the 19 months her mother was hospitalized before dying, at 71, as the result of a stroke during heart surgery. "I wanted her to feel part of my everyday life, and she seemed to like it more than being pitied or hearing confessions about all the lousy things I'd done."

Lesson #8: You don't have to issue a formal farewell every time you leave the room.

Not knowing if a parting is the final one brings the happiest of visits to an uncertain juncture. Here's where it helps to have expressed love, appreciation, forgiveness, and reassurance in an ongoing way, grieving survivors say .

"There's no law you have to 'make your peace' in one swoop. Say what you need to say many times and in different ways," Callanan recommends. "You'll be less likely to have regrets when the moment finally comes."

A full-time mother in Chicago says she was relieved to learn that the origin of "good-bye" is "God be with you."
"It made talking to my dying father about what he meant to me seem less like a heavy final exchange and more like an ongoing kind of blessing," she says.

On parting, hospice workers suggest loving, open-ended phrases, like: "I love you; sleep well." Or in place of words, express all you're feeling with an embrace.

Lesson #9: You can speak volumes without uttering a word.

It's hard to say good-bye -- but you don't have to "say" anything. Most critical: Just show up. Be there.

Susan, a 46-year-old Ohioan, says she felt awkward while listening to the eloquent words of comfort her siblings were giving their dying mother. "Everything I thought of saying either sounded like a lame echo of theirs or like a cliché that Mom would know wasn't really me. So instead I just sat next to her and held her hand for hours," she says. "From the way she gripped it back, even in her weak state, I know it meant a lot to her."

Foot rubs, stroking an arm or shoulder, kisses, smiles, and gazing into someone's eyes all communicate compassion, love, and gratitude for a shared lifetime. With or without accompanying conversation, your presence and your touch rank among the most eloquent, regret-free ways there are of saying good-bye.
 


9 days ago, said...

Myhusband passed away on a week ago. . I started feel so different when visited him 5 days before he died. But every one told me, that just effect from morfin/painkillers. But Thanks God, I followed my heart, he wanted to go. So a day before, the doctor told me what my feeling was right. I took a blanket and stayed a night with him at hospital, cuddle him, comfort him and pray all night till he closed his eyes. Its broken my heart but left a very beautiful memory, especially before he's unconsious, I asked him : please let me know if you ready to go, and he answered : see you later. He met our beautiful dog too at hospital. So please to every one who have a loved one dying, just follow your heart. Ask them what they want that time and maybe that their last wishes and let that happen. You will never regret it and hope that memories will healing the loss and pain.


about 1 month ago, said...

Silly article no lie I don't care if it's a white lie. Lies are lies. Just use a different approach. Integrity should never be compromised even in death.


about 1 month ago, said...

What a silly article. "Pay your respects", especially, to the people you love, every minute of every day. This way, you don't have to act or say anything different during the time they're alive. No need to glorify death in any way; there is absolutely no distinguishing life from death. I always smile when people use the phrase, "Pay my respects" at a funeral. Respect and consideration is useless to a dead people, imo. They would vastly appreciate your respect, more, when they're above ground, not under.


2 months ago, said...

I don't want to let my mother go, I know I'm being greedy but my mother is my everything. 2 months ago Doc. Told us she only had a few hours to a couple of days 2 months have passed and thank god she's still here with us also she is a very strong woman. But I know shes tired so a few weeks ago she looked at me and told me herself she was tired but she wasn't giving up because of us (3 daughters & 13 grandchildren).... All I said was THANK YOU!!!!! also told her I understood her pain & suffering and if she was ready to let go I would accept it but deep inside me honesty I can't. My mother & I have been thru so much we have such a special bond


2 months ago, said...

Sitting at my desk at work, i keep looking at my phone to see if anyone is calling me to tell me it is time. My dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer 3 months ago and we were recently told by his Dr that he is in last days and we need to make him as comfortable as we can. Where do i even begin preparing myself to let go. I keep asking myself how did we get here so fast? He is very quite lately and is not eating. When i look at him, my eyes just fill up with tears. He just sits there gazing at the ceiling and just nods... God prepare us for this... I was just never ready. There is just so much I want to say to him but i don't know how to.. tell him I love him and thank him for all that he had done for us. How do I go on after this? He has been my pillar even through my divorce he was there standing firm for my sake. now I have to say good bye.... My family says I've been very strong through this considering im the last born of 5 children, but i don't think that is true. i feel so weak. i cry almost everyday while driving to work or even at night. Memories just come crushing down and suddenly I realize that is all I'm going to be left with.


5 months ago, said...

Imagine a world where we all treated one another with compassion, understanding, empathy, love and respect. Would there be anything to regret?


5 months ago, said...

I traveled thousands of miles to see my Mum when she was dying, I was told there was no point by my sister as she was no longer conscious, I went into the hospital and told her that I loved her and it was OK for her to go, she smiled and tried to speak but was not able to - she had a look of relief and peace come over her and I was glad I did not listen to others but let my own heart take control.


6 months ago, said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of writing. Having lost my dad just 27 hours ago, I feel blessed to know that I did all the right things, especially that dad could hear me at the end. I love and miss you dad but I know you were ready and that in time I will have no regrets because everything was just how it should have been. Rest in peace daddy xxxxxx


6 months ago, said...

Thank you for this site. My good good friend, Tony is now in hospice. She's been sick for four years. She's lived with my sister for four years. Tony is a bit of a hoarder, and my sister is a germaphobe...sooo clean. Susie is now going thru gobs of papers in so many bags that Tony has acumulated. Susie is an old school RN. She is only too aware of what is happening with her dear friend Tony. (Antoinette) Pleeease pray for Susie and for me, too as we draw near to Tony leaving us. Thank you so very much!


7 months ago, said...

As a CNA pursing my RN license, this is VERY accurate. I have lost MANY residents who were more like family to me than people I was "paid" to care for, along with assisting their family members in their journey through the loss. We are not taught these things specifically in school, it has to come natural, with time and the love n compassion you feel in your heart and souls.


8 months ago, said...

Thank you for this excellent site. My mom is 93 and of sound mind but has stopped eating mostly. There is so much I am not sure what to say or ask, as I think she is wanting me to know she doesn't want to keep going to the hospital to stretch out her life. I just finished the book, Being Mortal, which I recommend to anyone hoping to understand what our society has done to dying. Thank you.


8 months ago, said...

Thank you so much for this. Of all of the sites I have been reading, this one has given me the knowledge of how to be with my father. He hasn't acknowledged his closeness to death and my family have been struggling with what to say, how to talk to and comfort him. He has been talking about coming home and playing golf, but he has also been asking about moving upstairs to a different ward and about having dreams of travel where he has been unable to get to his destination. I recognise now from this page that I can tell him he will be home soon, that he can travel freely wherever he chooses and that if just being with him is all he wants, we don't have to keep him entertained or distract him or talk about getting better so he can play golf. He can play as much golf as he wants without getting better.


11 months ago, said...

This helps me so much, my mom is unresponsive and I'm realizing this is the end for her she doesn't have the strength anymore. I have had a hard time telling her to let go. This article let's me know how important my feelings are. I have been lost not sure what I'm supposed to do, so thank you for this it has given me my strength and purpose.