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How Do You Talk To Someone Who Is Dying?

DISCLAIMER

Let me begin this very serious discussion by telling all of you that I am in no way a mental or medical health professional.

I am simply a man, in his seventy-second year of life, shuffling along this Path of Life, just like all of you. What follows is my perspective, based on a lifetime of living, and what seems like a lifetime of losing loved ones. I do not claim that my thoughts, written here, are embraced by any health organizations. I am just sharing my experiences when dealing with the dying. Take what follows with a grain of salt, or embrace it as my truth built upon a foundation of real-life lessons.

Me and my best friend

Me and my best friend

A Childhood of Loss

I can’t speak for other children, but many of my early memories are of time spent in hospitals, visiting ailing relatives, watching them slowly die. By the time I was ten I had lost a grandfather and favorite aunt. By fifteen, three other grandparents passed on, as did an uncle. At nineteen my father died.

I remember hours of sitting in waiting rooms, reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, smelling that distinct hospital smell, observing the pathos of humankind. I watched as grief overcame my parents, as they struggled with it, and I listened as they said their final goodbyes to loved ones. Inevitably, in those early years, I would be led into the hospital room, where one of my relatives lived out their last days, and I would say my tiny goodbyes, express my love for them, pushing away tears and trying to show how brave I could be.

When my father died, there was no preparation. He collapsed from a heart attack, I held his head in my lap, told him I loved him, and wept, and to this day I feel cheated for not having the chance to say my goodbyes to him.

The family is all gone; I am the only one remaining.

The family is all gone; I am the only one remaining.

Six Years Ago a Remarkable Thing Happened

My best friend, from high school until four years ago, was Frank Zderic. We met as freshmen, formed a bond, more brothers than friends, and began a friendship together which withstood the trials and tribulations of adulthood. We loved each other unconditionally, the kind of friendship which many can only dream of, and I can say, today, without hesitation, that I am a better human for having known Frank.

Six years ago, Frank was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer of the spine. One day he was running in a 10K race, felt a pain in his back, went to the doctor, and was told he had, at most, four years to live.

What followed was inevitable. Radiation, chemo, morphine to lessen the pain, tears, many tears, anger, much anger, proclamations of how unfair life is, and finally acceptance, and during those remaining years Frank and I had many discussions about dying.

What follows, then, are the lessons I learned about talking to someone who is dying, some of the most remarkable lessons I have ever learned.

Older and  hopefully a little wiser

Older and hopefully a little wiser

Listen Without Meaningless Bromides of Hope

The odds of recovering from Stage Four cancer of the spine are not worth calculating. By the time Stage Four has been reached, it is a foregone conclusion that the patient will die within a few years. That’s just the real of it. Frank understood that, as did I, so each of our meetings, after the diagnosis, were grounded in the knowledge that our friendship had a definite end-date.

Friends do not lie to each other. Friends support each other. I learned very quickly that Frank was quite willing, even eager, to talk about death, but at his pace, in his time. I would ask him how he was feeling on any given day. He would tell me. I would ask him if he wanted to talk about it that day. Some days he did; others were days we would talk about lightweight matters like sports or movies, or we would reminisce about growing up together, our silliness in college, the pranks we pulled on others, sharing a newsreel of two friends.

On those days when he wanted to talk about death, the conversations were honest and open. He would share what he felt about death. He would share his thoughts on an afterlife. I would ask serious questions about the most serious of subjects, quenching my thirst for knowledge, satisfying my curiosity. I remember, during one such conversation, I said something inane like “it’s going to be okay, buddy,” some throwaway line which I instantly regretted, and Frank just looked at me, laughed, and said “is that the best you’ve got, Billybuc? I’m dying and the best you can offer is ‘it’s going to be okay?’ That’s the last time I turn to you for wisdom.”

And we both laughed.

The Last Meeting

I drove down to Ashland, Oregon, from my home in Olympia, Washington, on August 20th, two years ago. The purpose of that road trip was to say goodbye to my lifelong friend one last time. I had received a phone call from Frank a month earlier, telling me it was different this time, he sensed that his body was finally done with the struggle, and if I planned on seeing him before he passed, it might be a good idea if I got my butt down to Oregon.

I spent a weekend with him on that last trip. We took walks. We sat over coffee. We had ice cream together, as we always did, a ritual of sorts. We played catch one last time, a shoutout to our love of baseball. And we talked about life, and death.

I have never, in my seventy-two years, witnessed any human being at peace with death, but Frank was on that weekend. He knew the end was near (he would die three months later), and he told me he was just grateful for the life he had been given, the life he had forged, grateful for his wife, Nancy, his two daughters, his extended family, and for me. He said there is a wonderful peacefulness associated with knowing the fight is over, that there is nothing left to be done, that he fought the good fight, lived the good life, and now it was time to move on.

“Don’t you dare be sad, Billybuc. No mourning, you hear me? We had one hell of a ride together, and from now on, I want you to think of the great times we had as friends, and celebrate those great times. Thank you for being my brother, my friend. I love you.”

We hugged. We wiped away tears. And I drove away, Frank waving in my rearview mirror.

Lessons Learned

Treat the dying with respect. Allow them to talk when they are willing to talk. Do not bother with words of advice, for they are going through the process and you are not. Simply give them the respect they are due by being a sounding board when they need to talk. Hold them when they need holding. Tell them you love them. Never lie to them. They deserve better than false hopes.

There will be fear. There will be anger. There will be multiple stages of each and your job, through all of those stages, is to simply give loving support. Do not try to be more than you are not. Just be yourself, share thoughts when asked to share, and allow the natural process to happen.

Death should not be sugarcoated, nor should it be unspoken. Death is a time for the walls to come crumbling down. Death is a time for humanness at the highest level.

Those are my thoughts on talking to the dying. If they help just one person, I will feel this was worth writing.

Blessings to you all.

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

Comments

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 07, 2021:

Thank you Devika! No, talking about it is not for everyone. It is a difficult topic for sure. All I can do is share my experience, faith, and hope.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 06, 2021:

Hi Bill Talking about death is not for everyone. You did what could when you had to and this is delicate topic. Life is just what it is and sharing your experience lets us know how you feel which in my opinion is a fact and we have to live through it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 04, 2021:

Thank you Mary! I am sure your husband understood your feelings without you actually saying them. Thank you for sharing that.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 03, 2021:

I lived through this with my husband. Sometimes, I wish I knew better but we learn from our experience. at my age now, more and more friends are on the verge of death and thank you for your thoughts.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 01, 2021:

I am glad you have been spared so far, Li-Jen. The longer you have to wait the better. :) Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 01, 2021:

I know this, Nithya: if I am talking to someone who is dying, it is they who are dying, not me, and I know nothing about the actual process of dying. So logically, it is my job to listen and be supportive. Giving my opinion about dying is, it seems to be, terribly worthless.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 01, 2021:

You and me both, Bill! Thanks for sharing your experience. I think you are right on with your approach.

Have a great weekend, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 01, 2021:

That's life indeed, Vidya, and no, it is not a topic people want to discuss, but I believe it is vital that we end that stigma and allow the discussion to happen. We are all facing the same final act in our individual plays.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on October 01, 2021:

Thank you Denise! I wish I knew a lot of things before I blundered into them. :)

Blessings always

Li-Jen Hew on October 01, 2021:

Thank you very much, Bill. Your article was helpful. It reminds us to be considerate and sensitive to those who are dying. I have not reached that stage of losing many loved ones yet.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on September 30, 2021:

It is difficult to talk about death, you always wonder if you are going to say something hurtful. I am happy you were able to spend a weekend with your friend before he passed away. He was brave about facing death even though he may have been scared about the prospect of facing death. We can never be prepared for that moment.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on September 30, 2021:

What a wonderful article, Bill. By time we get to our 60s and older we have all most likely endured the loss of loved one. My first experience with death was the loss of my grandfather while I was in high school. In college one of my best friends died and that was a life changing experience. I didn’t know how to talk to my friend then about death, but I tried the best I could to be there for him. Today I feel better prepared, but it is never easy. Love, listening, and compassion are what I would want when my time comes.

VIDYA D SAGAR on September 30, 2021:

Thank you Bill for sharing this heartfelt article about a topic which nobody likes to discuss, though everybody has to face some day or the other. It is a good thing you could be with your friend and say your goodbyes to him. It is admirable the way he accepted his end and was at peace with it at the end. It's a lesson for us all to learn. I was very close to my grandma and when she passed away suddenly from a heart attack, we were so shocked. I have regrets till tiday that I could'nt say my goodbyes to her and couldn't share some more years with her. But that's life. Have a blessed day my friend, take care.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on September 30, 2021:

Definitely worth discussing. I have blundered into things more than once, assuming my friend would be willing to talk when she was not. I wish I knew this before.

Blessings,

Denise

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Pamela, that is wonderful news about your surgery. May you continue to recover quickly and without setbacks. Wonderful news for sure, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Rinita, you are wise for you young age. Sometimes saying nothing speaks very loudly, yes? Thank you for your thoughts.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Hopefully, MIebakagh, we all are. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Your summation, Brenda, is right on in my opinion. Let him lead the way. It's his journey and he knows the direction. Well done, you, and best wishes on that journey.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Thank you for your thoughts, MG! I love hearing the different perspectives on a very difficult topic.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Lovely thoughts, AB. Lovely thoughts indeed. Lots of hugs and love. Not a bad arsenal to combat the fear and uncertainty of dying.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Thank you Audrey! I understand. I get lonely too, even with Bev and the doggies nearby. I miss my family and my friends who have passed. It's only natural to do so, yes?

love,

bill

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Thank you for sharing all of that, Heidi. I have an online friend who is facing a short timeline. The experts say she has no chance, so she is quitting the medicines and chemo and radiation, going home to her parents, and setting up hospice. She is handling it with remarkable poise, and I am in awe.

Yes, animals are indeed wise and amazing. I'm with you all the way on that observation.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Very nice, Peggy! I realize, at our age, it is inevitable that we would be the last one standing, but it still seems remarkable to me. Slightly lonely, more melancholy than sad. I do miss them all very much.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

Thank you Maria! It's a shame you were denied the ability to say goodbye to your family members. It seems like it's something we should all be able to do for loved ones, but fate often has other plans.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

He was in a beautiful place, Sha, and it was remarkable to see. I hope I carry myself with that much dignity when my time comes.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2021:

My pleasure, Miebakagh! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 30, 2021:

Hi Bill,

I remember your last trip to sew your friend, Bill. It is not always easy to know what to say to someone who is dying. I like your suggestions and I agree.

It is never easy to accept but that's where we all end up. I am happy to say this is the day after my cervical spine surgery , and I am doing well.

Rinita Sen on September 30, 2021:

Sometimes you have the time to talk to someone who's dying, other times you don't, just like you didn't with your father but did with your friend.

I had the time with my father but he could not talk and his cognition was impaired. There was nothing I could say, nor could he.

The last time I held his hands I spoke non-verbally, with the squeeze and with my eyes. He could see. And I felt that he did the same.

Sometimes, maybe, it's just best to say nothing and allow your connection with the person to take charge and let things flow. Thank you for writing this and hope all is well.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 29, 2021:

Brenda, you're getting mature.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on September 29, 2021:

Bill

Thank you for sharing this one.

This is something we all face and it's not easy.

I've put my foot in my mouth a few times when I say something without thinking.

Then there are those moments when you want to find Hope...to be a bit selfish & try anything to keep the person from dying.

When in reality it's not your place to hope.

The person dying must decide his own path. There is no selfishness allowed.

Your words remind me of the importance to just be there.

To ask if he wants to talk & not just assume.

Let him lead the way and enjoy the moments we get to share.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 29, 2021:

This is a very thoughtful article Bill, and it makes a reader think. Death as the Lord said is one facet of the cosmic dance; many experience it many times in their life and some very infrequently. To see a person dying , some on who is dear and near can be a shattering experience. Thank you for sharing.

A B Williams from Central Florida on September 29, 2021:

Hi Bill,

Someone asked me this question recently and I answered, we don't really talk about it, I'm just doing my best to love them through.

The same applies after death, what's really craved by those left behind aren't words but rather, lots of hugs and a supportive team, loving them through!

Beautiful content, as always!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on September 29, 2021:

I have outlived my closest friends, my beautiful son, two ex-husbands, and recently my younger sister. While I'm very grateful I'm still here, on this planet, I do get lonely at times. Enough about that.

Wonderful article, filled with common sense and wisdom. You're the best Billy Boy and I sure do love you!

Hugs,

Audrey

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 29, 2021:

Sadly, this is a subject that seems to be coming up a lot in my social spheres these days. A social media friend of many years passed from cancer, two others just lost their spouses, and one of them may lose a sibling soon, too. One of our dogs was given a short time horizon. This was just in the past couple months.

I agree that it's listening to the dying, or those facing it with their loved ones, without judgment or recommendations, is the way to go. This is difficult.

Aside from that, respect their decisions about their condition or future. I remember a friend who was going through cancer. I truly thought there was an alternative route to go given the circumstances. But I had to respect that she made what she thought was the best treatment decision for her. I think we want to offer hope or suggestions because we want to make it all better for those that we care about.

But I'm going to take a lesson from my dogger girl. Although she's made excellent progress after a visit to the ER vets, this condition will only get worse with time. She is enjoying her days without counting. Animals are so wise and amazing.

I could barely get through this without choking up. Thank you for tackling a tough subject!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 29, 2021:

Like you, all of my grandparents, parents, both brothers, all of my aunts and uncles, and many good friends have died. At our ages, it is to be expected. Your advice of being there to talk about the good times, and to be a sounding board and a shoulder to lean upon when needed, is all we can do. At some point we will all face death. Getting to once again see our loved ones in the next life is a happy thought for me.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

I don't know why it is such a hard subject, Ginger, but it sure is. I have not read that book, so thank you for the suggestion. I'm also always surprised by how many people fear death. I can understand fearing suffering, but death is either followed by another life or it is followed by nothing. Neither outcome seems terribly scary to me. :) Thanks for your thoughts. I'm glad you are here on HP.

Ginger Burke from Illinois on September 29, 2021:

I just love that there are people like you in the world. You wrote of your friend so well and with such a selfless perspective. It can be so awkward to talk with someone who is dying. But I really believe we will regret missing those opportunities to love someone through the hard times. Have you read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande? It was so helpful. Death is going to happen to all of us so why is it such a hard subject?

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you, Bill, for such a heartfelt article, for sharing a personal experience. I'm so glad you had a chance to say goodbye to your friend. I still regret not having the chance to say goodbye to my parents or grandparents. I think of things I could've and should've said or done, but it was too late. I will keep your valuable advice in mind for the future.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 29, 2021:

Thanks for sharing your story, Bill, and the lessons learned through your experiences with death. I totally agree: the one whose prognosis is inevitable should be the one to lead discussions, especially about death. It was comforting to learn that Frank was at peace with it when you saw him last.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 29, 2021:

"Death should not be sugar coated..." kind of preventing that and be realistic. Thanks dude for the advice.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Exactly, Dora, talk love and pray the words come out all right. Thank you for that.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you Misbah! Believe me, your friendship is very dear to me. I always consider myself to be a lucky man when a quality human being, such as yourself, is willing to be my friend. So thank you and blessings to you always.

Dora Weithers on September 29, 2021:

Bill, thanks for sharing this scenario. It's really hard to know what to say. Still being there is invaluable to the patient. And when in doubt, talk love and pray that it comes out right.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Rebels. on September 29, 2021:

It was worth writing, Sir. It really was. In fact, thanks for writing and sharing this article. Sometimes we are too busy that we often neglect people who really need our time and compassion. You are too kind. You have treated your friend well. I am so sorry to learn of your friend's death. Please accept my heartfelt condolences. May his soul rest in Peace. Amen!

Thank you for your friendship. I am blessed to have you as my friend. God Bless you and your loved ones. Amen!

Blessings and Peace always!!!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you, Jo! It's not a topic most people want to talk about, but it's a topic we all should be talking about. I believe the dying are very open to discussing it if they know they will be listened to and not advised. Death is a very personal matter, and like you said, the best we can do is be there for them and let them know they are loved.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

John, thank you! Advice about dying, from someone who is not dying, is so very empty. We have no idea what the dying person is feeling or thinking. Just be quiet, listen, and be willing to discuss it if asked. Period!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you, Jo, for sharing all of that. I really think that death needs to be discussed more, get it out in the open, make it part of the national discussion in health care. We all die, and we all need to learn how to deal with it in a healthy manner. Again, thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Becky, thank you for sharing part of your story. I'm just very sorry to hear about your health situation. Sending hugs your way, for you and your daughter.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Agreed, Ravi! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, my friend.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on September 29, 2021:

Bill, so sorry to learn of your friend's death. I was just writing about this subject, but from a child's point of view. I took a brake and saw your hub. A patient once asked me why would a merciful God cause her to suffer so much, only to take her life at the end. I had no words. Death comes to everyone sooner or later, if we are lucky, it happens peacefully while we are sleeping, or with our nearest and dearest around us. Sometimes the best thing is to simply be there to hold the hands of a loved one and tell them how much you love and appreciates them. But nine times out of ten, they already know. This is an important hub, you are spot on.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 29, 2021:

Thank you for writing this, Bill. I have lost my parents, all my aunts and uncles, two brothers in law and a sister in law, and a number of friends. Having loved one die, or dying is never easy, but your advice is very good. Many find it hard to find the right words to say to someone who has a terminal condition, but they need you just treat them as you always have.

Don’t shower them in pity and say you are sorry. Talk about things you have in common, both enjoy doing, and normal everyday things. But most of all be there for them when they need a sounding board. Unless you have been there and done that how can you give advice anyway?

Good work on this important subject.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 29, 2021:

Absolutely wonderful article, Bill. So relevant and so needed. One of the tragedies of the pandemic has been loved ones not being able to say goodbye, to be there to listen and comfort. My ex-husband died a few months ago following COVID. He had lived long enough with COVID at the time he died that he was no longer shedding the virus, so family and friends could visit him in the hospital. It was an excruiatingly difficult time for my two daughters, but I have never been more proud of them because of the way they handled that very difficult situation.

And just a side note: makes me smile that you can mention that you read both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I've always been proud my husband can admit he read and liked Anne of Green Gables as a boy. Makes me like both of you just a little bit more.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on September 29, 2021:

Thank you Bill. I am now going through the chemo stage (to give me time). When it gets to the right point, they will start the radiation again. I have 19 nodes on my lungs. No, I do not have lung cancer. I have an aggressive liposarcoma that has metastasized to my lungs. They do not think they can get it all. The chemo is as bad as they say. I wonder if it is worth it. Then I think about my 24 year old daughter, trying to do this by herself and think I can do nothing but continue fighting for time. She still needs me. She was totally devastated when her daddy died 6 years ago. All but one of her grandparents have been gone for many years. She has her older brothers, but they are too far away, or too big of jerks for her too feel comfortable with. She feels really alone right now.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on September 29, 2021:

Wonderful advise Bill. Nothing more annoys a dying person than piling him/her with meaningless advise. We just need to be a good sounding board and that is it. Thanks for the great article.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you Rosina! I hope you never need this advice, but if you do, I hope it helps you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you Umesh! I appreciate it very much!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2021:

Thank you so very much, Linda! I'm so happy you found it worthwhile.

Rosina S Khan on September 29, 2021:

Thank you, Bill, for your thoughts on how to deal with a dying person. I am sure this is good advice to many of us. It is indeed very commendable of you to write such a piece, which is going to help out so many. Gratitude for sharing.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on September 29, 2021:

Bill, I've sat at the keyboard for 5 minutes trying to find the words. All I can say is this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 29, 2021:

Very nice narration, Bill. You have canvassed those memories so nicely in this article.

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