How should you act around a loved one who’s dying? Many people feel a strange new awkwardness layered over their grief in the last days and hours. There’s a sense of wanting to make the most of this sad and waning time, but of not being sure what’s best to say or do.
The following broad guidelines can help:
1. Know that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to behave.
Cry if you feel like it. Or don’t. There’s no master playbook of how to behave at these critical junctures on life’s journey. Many families take solace in humor. Others get physical. Don’t get trapped by common myths about how to act when someone is dying, like avoiding tears.
2. Acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”
Your loved one knows he or she is dying. Avoiding talking about it or acting like nothing’s amiss can be isolating to the person at the very time they want and need to feel close. Take your cues from the dying person. Listen for openings. Some people talk about death in metaphors, for example. Don’t shut them down (“Don’t talk like that; you’ll be fine!”).
3. Start by just being present.
Your physical presence speaks volumes. When you feel unsure what to say or do, know that you don’t have to say or do anything. Simply being there can provide companionship and comfort. So can holding hands or listening.
4. Don’t leave kids out.
Children and teens feel grief, too. Don’t magnify their sad feelings by pretending nothing’s wrong. Bereavement experts generally counsel being straight with kids: Use age-appropriate terms to explain what’s going on. Don’t makeup lies or be evasive. (Kids are smart.) Let them say good-bye, but don’t force it if they seem disinterested or uncomfortable. It’s OK. Include them in memorial services, especially for immediate family members they know and love.
5. Remember these four key messages.
Dying people typically want to express — and to hear — four things, says Ira Byock, a professor of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire and author of The Four Things That Matter Most: “Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.” “I love you.””