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Caregiver Training Blog

How to BE with Someone Who is Dying

How to be with someone who is dying.

The last time I saw Helen was at a planning meeting for our 25th high school reunion.  While we weren’t the closest of friends during our time in school, reminiscing and catching up during all our meetings helped us create a new kind of friendship.  As we shared the many things we had in common, marriage, divorce, children, and a multitude of grandkids; we also promised to keep in touch after the reunion.  Life does have a way of moving right along and twenty-five years later, now planning our 50th reunion, Helen and I never fulfilled our promise to stay in contact.  That is until I received a call from a mutual friend, Helen was in hospice.

Whether it’s a friend, a parent or a grandparent, making a visit to someone who is dying is a difficult and sometimes frightening thing to do.  Anticipating a visit may create anxiety about what to do, what to say or just how to be present. 

There are a multitude of websites with long lists of how to visit someone in a hospital or hospice, but the following tips by Becky Riney, a social worker at Alive Hospice Residence Nashville, are simple, yet very practical:  

1. Presence counts. People may not remember what you say but they remember that you cared enough to be there. Don’t feel you have to have answers or profound words. A caring presence can be a gift.

2. Don’t use clichés. Often people have the intention of saying comforting words but it comes across as minimizing the person’s situation. Don’t say “I know how you feel” or that you know they will be better soon. Just say you care. Be willing to listen if they want to talk.

3. Silence is okay. If a person doesn’t want to talk or is unable to talk, you can say, “I’ll sit with you for a little while.” It may give the family a break if you offer to sit with someone while they run an errand or eat a meal.

4. Keep visits brief. In most cases it is best not to stay too long or to have too many visitors at one time. A 10-15 minute visit may be enough to show you care. You might try to call first to make sure it is a good time. If someone doesn’t feel like a visit, don’t take it personally; respect their wishes.

5. Bring a little something. You may want to bring a greeting card or a picture or clipping or a flower. You might need to check before leaving food, unless you are bringing food just for the family.

People appreciate knowing you are thinking of them and that you care.

Realizing that offering your presence rather than feeling you have to do something is an important lesson to keep in mind when visiting someone who is ill.  mmLearn.org offers over 200 free videos including a three-part series about hospice and what families can expect during a hospice experience presented by Dr. Justo Cisneros, the medical director at Hospice Inspiris. Additionally, a video about How to BE with Someone Who is Dying presented by Peg Armstrong.  This very poignant and realistic program prepares the viewer for a hospital or hospice visit with a clear understanding of your role.