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.
 


11 days 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... Show more 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. Hide


3 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. 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. Hide


3 months ago, said...

Thank you for your ensightful article. I found it most helpful. God bless you for sharing it. Thank you for your ensightful article. I found it most helpful. God bless you for sharing it. Hide


4 months ago, said...

Our mom was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. I am second olderst of five girls- not only mom's POA but the traditional family role of being stoic and logical. I am struggling 'behind' closed doors with my grief but feel I must maintain the appearance of strength. Our mom was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. I am second olderst of five girls- not only mom's POA but the traditional family role of being stoic and logical. I am struggling 'behind' closed doors with my grief but feel I must maintain the appearance of strength. Hide


5 months ago, said...

My Mom & I found my oldest sister died & Now my only sister left ( I'm the youngest ) I have to travel t I'm 53y/o, my only sister left 56y/o is dying, My parents- taking it hard - she is with hospice now (pancreatic & liver cancer for ~1year Has been responding to Europe Radiation 3weeks had gallbladder removed, Dr removed some of Ca from live & pancreas successfully, but after ~ 1week while still in hospital , Dr reported he punctured her lungs fluid built up in her abdomen &... Show more My Mom & I found my oldest sister died & Now my only sister left ( I'm the youngest ) I have to travel t I'm 53y/o, my only sister left 56y/o is dying, My parents- taking it hard - she is with hospice now (pancreatic & liver cancer for ~1year Has been responding to Europe Radiation 3weeks had gallbladder removed, Dr removed some of Ca from live & pancreas successfully, but after ~ 1week while still in hospital , Dr reported he punctured her lungs fluid built up in her abdomen & never recovered from this complication from surgery! She is dying , hospice with her- all family with her except me, her younger sister ( I pray my travel will get me to her ASAP , My father called & said she's going fast, I'm going to regret for rest of My life(with MS) if I can't Talk to her, I need all the advice You can give me...Please , Hide


5 months ago, said...

I am the oldest of 5 siblings and the caregiver. I am also the one closest to Mom's home. She is on Hospice now so I have told all the sibling to come and stay with her for as long as they can just to visit and help with the every day chores while she is not in pain and able to visit. So I am copying this whole article or sending it to the ones with no puter. Thank you This will be a big help for all of us to get though the lose of a super Mom. I am the oldest of 5 siblings and the caregiver. I am also the one closest to Mom's home. She is on Hospice now so I have told all the sibling to come and stay with her for as long as they can just to visit and help with the every day chores while she is not in pain and able to visit. So I am copying this whole article or sending it to the ones with no puter. Thank you This will be a big help for all of us to get though the lose of a super Mom. Hide


5 months ago, said...

This article answered my question on how I should behave or act when the moment comes i have always been weak in terms of facing death even death of my pets. I hope to be able to face it. This article answered my question on how I should behave or act when the moment comes i have always been weak in terms of facing death even death of my pets. I hope to be able to face it. Hide


5 months ago, said...

This article came at just the right time. My sister's best friend got a very bad cancer report. She was diagnosed in February. She might not be here by Christmas. I sent it to my sister after our conversation earlier about her not knowing how to act around her. This article came at just the right time. My sister's best friend got a very bad cancer report. She was diagnosed in February. She might not be here by Christmas. I sent it to my sister after our conversation earlier about her not knowing how to act around her. Hide


5 months ago, said...

Crying in front of dying person, when you normally do not cry, tells them you love them like nothing else you can. If you feel like crying, DO IT! I did with my mother. The look of love from her told me she understood how much I loved her in a way words could never communicate. Crying in front of dying person, when you normally do not cry, tells them you love them like nothing else you can. If you feel like crying, DO IT!
 
 I did with my mother. The look of love from her told me she understood how much I loved her in a way words could never communicate. Hide


5 months ago, said...

I completely agree that thugs should not be held back until the last moments of a loved ones life . I lost my sister to breast cancer on my fathers birthday , July 31st 2015 . I spent many days and nights talking with her before she became unable to hold a phone and we talked about everything and everyone, cleared up past disagreements and actually made plans to be together when we both had left this world. It was something she wanted to discuss so we did and it made such a difference in how... Show more I completely agree that thugs should not be held back until the last moments of a loved ones life . I lost my sister to breast cancer on my fathers birthday , July 31st 2015 . I spent many days and nights talking with her before she became unable to hold a phone and we talked about everything and everyone, cleared up past disagreements and actually made plans to be together when we both had left this world. It was something she wanted to discuss so we did and it made such a difference in how I handled loosing her compared to my other sister and brothers . When she became extremely ill and hospice had to become involved I handled it just as we had discussed it , like she was going to go on the trip ahead of me but I would catch up someday. My other siblings were either unemotional or began treating and talking to her as if she were a child . I feel this was a bit degrading since she is the oldest and had always treated us as children , treating her and talking to her in that way was never how she had been treated or talked to in the past . There is a sense of authority that comes with being an older sibling that needs to always remain until that last breath is taken . Not showing any emotion gave a sense that they didn't even care what was happening, both to me are the extreme at both ends . I was fortunate enough to have had all those conversations so I just continued them until it became a problem and I was told I wasn't accepting her death and not to mention things we are going to do when it came my turn to go . I actually told my sister what had been said to me and she gripped my hand harder and harder until I told her it must be time to say goodbye so she could go on ahead of us and not to worry since I had always been the black sheep in the family , I told her nothing has changed and it showed her it was ok that nothing has changed and she wasn't being told this big story that everyone had joined together and put the past behind us when in reality my sister new that was not possible. I told her goodbye for now and I am one who never says goodbye unless I mean goodbye , she eased up her grip and seamed to rest .she died the next morning at 4:00am on our fathers birthday . I really had a difficult time watching what was happening and from past discussions I new she new this , I was continuously hounded by mother and siblings to be there every minute when I felt it wasn't needed knowing how my sister felt and once I had tod her goodbye I just couldn't put a false thought in her head by showing up again after telling her goodbye. There are harsh feelings towards me over this but for my sister and her journey she needed to know the truth and sometimes things will change when we loose a loved one but very seldom is it continued. Things return to the way they had always been . Telling a loved one goodbye doesn't mean lie to them or paint a beautiful picture of things especially when the loved one knows they will not be part of this beautiful picture .
 It's a very hard thing to talk about but don't wait until it's a one sided conversation, it's to lat then . Talk as much as possible even if what you have to say isn't pleasant, you can hear the other side of the conversation. Hide


5 months ago, said...

I have a friend that I am going to visit that I worked with. She has been given anywhere from 1 to 6 years to live. She had to leave work due to her illness . I am going to bring her lunch and just have a short visit. We have not been best friends but I do care for her. When I found out her situation, we had been working together. What should I base our conversation on and what can I say to her so she knows that I genuinely care about her. How can I make our visit special and meaningful? I have a friend that I am going to visit that I worked with. She has been given anywhere from 1 to 6 years to live. She had to leave work due to her illness . I am going to bring her lunch and just have a short visit. We have not been best friends but I do care for her. When I found out her situation, we had been working together. What should I base our conversation on and what can I say to her so she knows that I genuinely care about her. How can I make our visit special and meaningful? Hide


9 months ago, said...

Very helpful information. Skatergirl - you can still tell your Mom you love her. She'll hear you! Very helpful information. Skatergirl - you can still tell your Mom you love her. She'll hear you! Hide


10 months ago, said...

Great article! Thank you. Great article! Thank you. Hide


10 months ago, said...

I have a few regrets of my own from when my mom past away in January 2015 she was in a coma state so I didnt get to hear her voice just for that last time and I regret not being able to say a word to her all I could do was hold her hand and ball I tried to say I love you to her but it was almost impossible and this haunts me alot on nights when I cant sleep espeacialy since im only 13 so its hard but after reading this my regret has eased a oittle I dnt feel as bad about not being able to... Show more I have a few regrets of my own from when my mom past away in January 2015 she was in a coma state so I didnt get to hear her voice just for that last time and I regret not being able to say a word to her all I could do was hold her hand and ball I tried to say I love you to her but it was almost impossible and this haunts me alot on nights when I cant sleep espeacialy since im only 13 so its hard but after reading this my regret has eased a oittle I dnt feel as bad about not being able to really say anything when we were there a day before she past to say my goodbyes. So thank you for writing this article and god bless everyone. <3 :) Hide


10 months ago, said...

this was very helpful... thank you. Show more this was very helpful... thank you. Hide


11 months ago, said...

Wonderful thoughts. Thanks for sharing. Wonderful thoughts. Thanks for sharing. Hide


11 months ago, said...

I had this conversation when my Mother was at the end of her life. I told her it was Ok that she leave me and I knew she was tired and wanted to be with my Dad and brother. She pushed away at one point, but since my Mom wasn't speaking she told me in so many ways that she'd Loved me and she was happy. I had this conversation when my Mother was at the end of her life. I told her it was Ok that she leave me and I knew she was tired and wanted to be with my Dad and brother. She pushed away at one point, but since my Mom wasn't speaking she told me in so many ways that she'd Loved me and she was happy. Hide


11 months ago, said...

The most important thing I tell everyone - it's more important to the person who is dying that you know how they feel about you! It doesn't matter if they have had the chance to tell you or not - even when a person is in a coma - say the things you know they would want to say to you. "I love you - and I know you love me too!" "I know how much you appreciated me taking care of you" I know some times we both got frustrated with each other --- but it really wasn't about you or me - we were... Show more The most important thing I tell everyone - it's more important to the person who is dying that you know how they feel about you! It doesn't matter if they have had the chance to tell you or not - even when a person is in a coma - say the things you know they would want to say to you. "I love you - and I know you love me too!" "I know how much you appreciated me taking care of you" I know some times we both got frustrated with each other --- but it really wasn't about you or me - we were both frustrated by the disease we couldn't control." Say the things for them that you know they would want to say to you! Hide