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How do you behave around a dying relative or friend?

Imagine that your relative or friend has been rushed into hospital and quite possibly you have no idea what is wrong with them. Naturally a large part of your conscious mind keeps on telling you how wonderful modern medicine is, and that the person is going to be okay now they are in the right place to get treatment. In the meantime your subconscious mind is planting seeds of doubt that say 'what if they aren't going to be okay, what if they are dying?'

This is a scary situation that many of us have suffered, and whilst in the majority of cases the family member or friend will be treated by the Doctors, and will be fine, (probably living on for many years afterwards), there are sadly occasions where this is not the case and the person will be diagnosed with a terminal illness that may previously not even have exhibited any significant symptoms. This is what happened to me when my first Husband was rushed into hospital with severe abdominal pains at the age of 48. You can read the full story in my Hub called Bowel Cancer Stole My Husband at 48 Years Old. This article is not about that however, or at least not directly. This article is about how you talk to and act around the diagnosed person after the terminal diagnosis, and the mistakes some people tend to make when around the dying person.

The Mistakes People Make

The main mistake people tend to make when they are told their family member or friend is dying and nothing more can be done to save them, is they immediately fall apart and panic. If the dying loved one picks up on this they end up feeling they are the one that has to be strong for everyone around them, and the end result is 'who is going to be strong for them?' This is a tip I was given by one of the Doctors looking after my Husband when he had been diagnosed with advanced Bowel Cancer (Colon Cancer).

Another mistake the family or friends tend to make is to avoid the dying person as much as possible. I suspect this is largely because they really don't think they will know what to say or how to behave around their dying relative or friend. This is a tragedy when you consider that the terminally ill person is going to need the support of all of their loved ones, including friends as well as family. They may well be terrified, but afraid to show their fear in case this makes things more uncomfortable for those closest to them. The last thing they need is to find themselves largely alone, with no-one they can confide in about how scared they are, or how worried they might be about their family members.

Don't spend your time around them in floods of tears and voicing how you 'just don't know how you will cope without them'. This just isn't fair and only puts more pressure on the dying person, and also makes them feel 'guilty' for being terminally ill. Basically you need to grit your teeth and put on the bravest face you can for their sake. Cry by all means, but do it in private and away from your sick relative or friend. In my case the tears stayed mostly under control while I struggled through two weeks of watching my Husband wither away in front of me. I survived on adrenalin until he passed, but then the tears flowed freely, held at bay somehow by the sheer need for me to stay strong for his sake.

Please don't keep your young children away from the dying loved one. This is an important lesson in life for them to learn, i.e. the realities of death. It would also be terribly cruel to stop the terminally ill person from having a chance to spend time with the children they love too, and to have a chance to say their goodbyes in their own way.

What You Can Do To Help

So what can you do to help? Well you might be surprised just how much of a difference you can make to that person. Here are a few suggestions in no particular order:

If they live alone and have any pets, offer to look after their pets for them and promise to either offer them a home or to make sure they get good homes when the family member or friend finally passes away.

Give them 'permission to cry'. Too many terminally ill people feel like they mustn't show weakness or fear. By telling them it is 'okay to cry' and 'let it out', you give them the chance to feel they don't have to 'put on a brave face' for everyone around them, whether they have a good cry in private, or with you for support.

Encourage them to enjoy the time they have left by taking part in activities that appeal to them, whether it is a few hands of poker with their friends or playing some golf, whatever they want to do that is within their capabilities and that will bring them pleasure, smiles, and even laughs in the time they have left.

Don't be afraid to laugh with them. The last thing anyone dying needs is to spend their final weeks or months with everyone around them afraid to smile or giggle in case it seems like they don't care their friend or relative is dying. They need to laugh and see other people laughing too. Take them to a comedy club, tell them jokes, reminisce over funny stories from their past (and yours for that matter). It is true that 'laughter is the best medicine' in more ways than one.

If they are hospital, a hospice or housebound, find out what foods they really love and take meals or snacks consisting of these foods in to them, (naturally check with the Doctors before you do this in case certain foods are definitely not a good idea). In my Husband's case he wanted tinned pears, and although he only managed one chunk of pear, he was really pleased to be able to fulfil this craving.

On a similar subject to above, why not offer them some wine or beer? I have been in hospitals recently where they actually have a wine list! If a person is dying anyway why shouldn't they have a glass of wine or beer, heck, why can't they have a cigarette! If the diagnosis is that the person is terminally ill and probably won't have much longer to live, then I strongly believe they should be able to do what they want within reason. It may shorten their life slightly, but if it is by a matter of hours or a day or two, then at least they got quality of life over quantity. It is selfish for us to deprive a dying person of small luxuries in order to (possibly) keep them alive a short time longer so we gain a few more hours with them, especially when we have no idea if it actually would have made any difference. Naturally this conversation needs to be had with both the Doctor and the dying patient first.

In the case of terminally ill ladies, they may well feel very unattractive and sickly looking. If you can try to take them some make-up/cosmetics and help them to apply them. You can also help them to do their hair and nails nicely so they feel comfortable facing people.

Offer to drive the relative or friend to places they have always wanted to visit, or places they already have fond memories of from their past (assuming they are fit enough to travel).

If they do have much loved pets at home but are themselves hospitalised or in a hospice, try to get permission to bring their pets in to visit them. Many hospitals and hospices will be very understanding and compassionate about this and will try to accommodate the wishes of the terminally ill patient.

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Reassure the dying family member or friend that you will 'be there' for their surviving family members after they have passed on. This is usually something they will be very concerned about.

Consider their spiritual beliefs if any. If possible ask them if they wish to talk to ministers from their faith, and don't assume their faith is the same as yours, e.g. whilst you might want the 'last rights' read to you ultimately, if they are a Pagan they will not be interested in this, and nor will they want visits from neighbourhood Priests.

Of course one of the most important things you can do is simply listen, be there for them, and spend as much time with them as you can allowing them to say or talk about whatever they need to in order to cope with what they are going through.


I have probably missed out various other important things you can do for your dying friend or relative, but I am optimistic that I will get comments here that will offer other suggestions that will enrich the content of this hub, and hopefully offer a place to turn to for anyone faced with this daunting challenge. Whatever happens remember, the person dying is still the same person they always were, and they simply want to spend time with those they love and not be treated any differently, (in most cases at least).


Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 07, 2017:

Thank you for sharing your situation Betre. You sound like a very loving and caring person. I am sure your grandmother knows how much you love her and care for her. She probably just misses you when you aren’t around, and without meaning to, admonishes you for not being there (simply because families unconditionally love each other and know whatever they say, even harsh words, will be forgiven by the family member in question). All you can do is your best.

Perhaps it is worth explaining to her that you had a difficult day and were feeling emotional as a result. I am sure she may be aware that the ‘being overjoyed’ story doesn’t seem likely, and then she may worry about what she isn’t being told, leaving her feeling more isolated and out of the loop than ever. A bit of toned down and gentle honesty is probably a better option.

I sincerely wish you both well, and hope you never feel guilty, especially when you and her both know how supportive you have been to her in the past.

I have a friend in the same sort of situation with her elderly mother. She lives with her and is largely her carer too, but her Mum still vents her own frustrations on to her because she is nearest and also the only family member who helps out in any significant way.

Betre on October 06, 2017:

First and foremost, thank you so much for writing this article. It has helped me gain a great deal of perspective during a very difficult time in my life.

My grandmother is in her 80s and after some serious falls and scares she's developed severe anxiety and calls every day or so to tell me to call her more (I'm her favorite grandchild, and we've always had a uniquely special bond). She constantly says in fearful or devastated tones that she's going to die.

Being a family of immigrants, we have a range of cultural codes influencing how our family takes care of her and treats her, but the biggest value for everyone right now is avoiding being sad and emotional around her in order to help her cope better, and to cope better with the stress of having to take care of her in such a demanding time while working on the struggles in their own lives at ages like 40s and 50s (kids, marriages, work issues, their own impending retirements etc.). She has a hard enough time keeping calm already.

She helped raise me until I was about 15, and about three months ago I moved back to our home state after years away in college/graduate school. Today, when she called, I was a little out of my mind with stress from my own life, and probably shouldn’t have picked up the phone at all knowing I wasn’t thinking clearly, but when she started admonishing me for not calling her more often and saying she would love to dial my number but can’t because she’s blind, I started crying on the phone and kept telling her I love her so much, and heard her voice breaking telling me not to cry and asking me why I’m crying.

My uncle luckily took over the phone and told me it’s ok and we told her I cried because I was just overjoyed to hear her voice. But I feel guilty beyond words that I may have made an already impossible situation even more intolerable for them, and that she may have seen through it and into the sadness in my tone.

At one moment, I even freaked out that I may be responsible for stressing her heart out so bad she may begin to deteriorate this same day. Either way, I hope this story connects to other people’s experiences and helps them deal with their own doubts and fears and stumbles in moments of grief. We're all human in the end. Thank you again.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on May 07, 2017:

Thank you for you kind compliments Nikita. I am glad you found this article helpful.

Nikita Filer from Blackwood on May 06, 2017:

I love this article so much. It has really hit home as I am in constant worry that my grandad (best friend) will pass soon. It's made me realise that although that is going to happen, it will happen when it happens not when I worry.

Thank you for this great piece of advice.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on May 05, 2013:

Hi 'Alone', it is not often I am lost for words to say that are adequate, but in this case I truly am. I sincerely feel terrible for you, at the same time as I am sure the last thing you want is pity. I don't know the circumstances under which you became estranged from your family, but I do know one thing, and that is that the saddest words in the English language are 'too late'. Surely there may be some chance of a partial reconciliation, even now (depending on how you became estranged)! I really hope so, because I hate the idea of you going through this alone.

Please try to build bridges with your family (even now) if it is remotely possible. Also don't forget that you cannot choose your family, but you can choose your friends, and sometimes friends can be far better than family in terms of support. I really hope you do have close friends.

I am here if you need me, and feel free to private message me through my profile here whenever you need to talk to someone in private, or when you feel low and in need of support.

I sincerely wish you well and hope you will be able to find a way to become close with your relatives again before it is too late.

Alone on May 05, 2013:

Thank you for that beautiful story . We can all learn much from unfortunate situations if we just open our eyes & minds. I was rescently diagnosed with advanced stages of Spinal Cancer & have maybe 2-6 months to live, unfortunately I don't have the resources left after being unable to work for quite some time now, I have been estranged from my family for a long time . However I know if I had the resources I would want to actually go on a clothes shopping spree day (always my fave) and possibly a good meal out...I would suggest finding out their fave things & trying to fufill the things that are possible, but most of all not letting them die alone. That is probably what im so scared of, knowing I will soon be dieing alone . Thanks again .

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on June 02, 2012:

Thank you Dorsi, I hope it is helpful to others.

Yes, it was very tragic to lose my Husband when he was so young. A horrible time in my life all round. I just hope he is in a better place now, and that using the experience I went through I can at least bring some good to others out of something so very bad, even if it just from Hubs like this one.

Dorsi Diaz from The San Francisco Bay Area on June 02, 2012:

Misty, beautiful and honest hub. A much needed hub as I don't think most people know what to do or how to handle their loved one dying.

Condolences Misty on the loss of your husband - he was so young still. Thank you for sharing your personal experience to help others.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on June 01, 2012:

Thanks for sharing this Beth. What a very sweet and lovely story. It is sad she didn't get to be seen in it when alive, but at least she 'looked gorgeous' on the day of her funeral.

Beth on June 01, 2012:

When my grandmother was dying she was adament that we were not to go out and buy her any new clothes for the funeral. Just a couple of days prior to when she actually passed, I decided to ask her if there was anything at all she wanted me to do before she went, and if so, I promised her if it was physically possible, she could be assured I would fulfill her wish. She thought for a moment, then said, "Remember when I said I did not want a new dress? I've changed my mind. I think I would like one. And I want to wear my pearls." I was particularly touched by her request for a dress, q as I had not seen my grandmother buy herself a new dress....EVER. I then asked, "What color would you like, Nannie? " "What color do you think I look best in?" she asked. I told her I had always thought she looked pretty in light blue. "I want a light blue dress then," she decided. Well, being fall made it difficult finding a light blue dress, but my brother and I found an at-the-end-of-the-season sale, and found the perfect lovely dress for my grandmother to be buried in. We rushed it back to her hospital room and showed it to her. As she ran her hand over it and smiled in approval, I was happy to have been able to fulfill that wish, but was saddened by the thought that she finally had a new dress, but would not be seen in it while alive. She was gorgeous on her funeral day, in her new dress and favorite pearls.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 23, 2011:

I know exactly what you mean JenJen, it is never easy, you just have a slight advantage over those who have no idea their loved one is going to die e.g. in traffic accident cases.

Jennifer McLeod from Detroit, Michigan on October 23, 2011:

I was with my foster dad when he passed away, as was the whole family. We knew he would die eventually because of the terminal illness he had, but it was not easy none the less.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 23, 2011:

Thanks Steve, that is compliment worth having from a writer of your caliber. :)

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on October 23, 2011:

Lots of great advice in this excellent hub! Voted up! I can see why you have 100 as your hubscore!

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 18, 2011:

Thanks moiragallaga, I hope you never need this article, but if you ever do I also hope it makes the decisions as to how to act around the person easier for you.

Moira Garcia Gallaga from Lisbon, Portugal on October 18, 2011:

This is very valuable advice Misty. I have trouble dealing with situations like you faced. I don't know how to act and don't know what to say. I'm always afraid I might be doing or saying the wrong thing and make it worse. Thank you for sharing this experience and your insights on this matter.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 17, 2011:

Hi mega1, I love the idea of cultures who have parties and they send off the person with a wonderful time. I want people to celebrate my life when I die, not be miserable and weeping profusely at my funeral.

I actually did suggest taking my Husband to the Golf Course after his diagnosis, and this was when the Macmillan Nurse took me to one side and said 'You do realise how ill your Husband is?'. I guess I was in denial and thought I would have months with him, especially as the Doctor had told me he had between 6 weeks and 6 months to live, (sadly he died within 2 weeks as you know). I am sure he would have loved to go around the golf course one more time with his best friend if only it had been possible.

mega1 on October 17, 2011:

Misty - this is great - I have been struggling with this issue since I work with old people. I like the idea that many cultures have of having a huge party just as their old one is about to die and then they send the person off with a wonderful time, laughs, music, booze, dancing, a lot of respect to the old one, who feels still a part of things instead of being shunted off to a hospital bed with quiet and loneliness and whispering. You really made me laugh when you said "take them golfing" or "to the comedy club"! Everyone is so afraid these days that the old ones are going to croak out there in public! In fact, I, even, am thinking of dying my hair!

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 17, 2011:

Thank you Paradise 7 this is a huge compliment coming from you and I am very glad you felt I had done a good job on this article. I just hope it is helpful to anyone going through this like I did.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on October 17, 2011:

Misty, you hit the right tone with the dying person, and that's the main thing. One doesn't want to rush in telling jokes; nor does one want to rush in crying one's eyes out.

The best plan is the one you outlined: treat it like a normal visit, keep the conversation calm, and find out if the person would like anything or if there's anything you can bring them. If the dying person mentions being sad or afraid, offer your support and sympathy and a shoulder to cry on.

You covered this topic, this painful topic so well, with so much grace and tact. Definitely thumbs up all the way.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 17, 2011:

Thank you Earth Angel, what a lovely and moving comment to receive. I am glad that people in the Hospice you attend have you to talk to, as I am sure you inspire them to not be afraid and see this as simply a transition back to a spirit form.

Earth Angel on October 17, 2011:

Dearest Misty, This is a wonderful and heartfelt Hub.

Thank you so much for sharing your own tender moments of profound loss. I am so sorry you lost your beloved husband at such an early age.

Thank you also for giving voice to things others may not think about. Favorite foods and after care of pets. (Two of my six fur angels are after care.)

I have been blessed to participate with Hospice for many years; it is an honor to be with someone as the veil lifts and they are free of broken and worn bodies.

That so many people are unsure what to do in this natural part of life is a sad statement to our culture's obsession with youth and all things new and shiney.

If we could begin to look at death as just one part of the same cycle to which birth also belongs, we could end much suffering ~ the pain is still there, but the suffering can lessen.

Thank you beautiful soul for your loving and gentle words of wisdom.

Blessings always, Earth Angel

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 17, 2011:

Hi Dave, if they wanted to talk about what would happen after they died I would definitely tell them I am certain there is something after and that they will be reunited with all their lost loved ones. I would say this because I firmly believe it, not just to make them feel better. I wouldn't believe in building false hopes in situations of life and death either, (to be honest I think the 'soul' already knows it is going to pass anyway, even if the conscious mind is not fully aware of this).

Thanks for posting your thoughts here :)

Dave Mathews from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA on October 17, 2011:

Misty: I am a firm Christian Believer, and I firmly believe that we are simply spirit beings living in human for for whatever period of time God requires this from us. I do not believe in building false hope for people especially when it comes to situations of life and death, so I would always try to get them to see that soon they will be returning to our creator. I see this a a realistic and truthful approach.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 17, 2011:

Hi 'cat on a soapbox', thank you very much for your kind comment. I hope this hub helps others faced with this situation.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 17, 2011:

Hi RealHousewife, I am sorry to hear about your Step Dad. I have a Step Dad too and I dread the time I lose him as he is a wonderful man. At least you stayed positive around him, and it sounds as if your daughter helped a great deal. Honestly it sounds as if you worked out the right way to be aroud him without needing my artice.

Catherine Tally from Los Angeles on October 17, 2011:

First, Misty, I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your story and for providing such good advice on a difficult subject.

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on October 16, 2011:

I wish I had read this years ago. Sadly, my step-father died from a long battle with lung cancer. He raised me most of my life - I was very close to him and had such a hard time knowing how I should behave when I was falling apart inside too. I didn't want him to sense my stress or sadness. I wanted to be positive.

He still picked my daughter up from kindergarten everyday.....he told me that she brought so much joy to his life and he thanked me for "having" her for him to be with regularly. I'm so glad they were so close. She didn't treat him differently - she made him laugh so much!

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 16, 2011:

Thanks Cathleena, a great an intuitive comment.

Cathleena Beams from Tennessee on October 16, 2011:

A great hub on a difficult subject. It's always hard to know what to say in this situation. I think sometimes nothing at all has to be said and all that is needed is an understanding heart for support.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 16, 2011:

Hi Moonlake, thanks for sharing your story. I hope you can find a way for your family member to realise how important this laughter would have been to your Sister-in-Law.

My Husband came home for his final 48 hours of life, his Brother had flown in from Australia at least 10 days earlier, and both his Sisters had travelled to our home to be with him. The first night of that 48 hours all I heard was laughter between all of them, talking about stories of their growing up years and happier times. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

He died with me holding his hand, his Brother by my side. The sun was rising and shining through the window, and both our dogs were in the room at the end. His best friend was in the next room (unable to face being in the same room). It was sad, but in a very perfect way that has tears rolling down my cheeks even typing this.

moonlake from America on October 16, 2011:

When my sister-in-law was dying she wanted to know who she should say "Hi" to on the other side. Each one of us told her who we wanted her to speak to. We all, including her had a good laugh over some of the remarks. She died a few hours after that. Later I heard that a family member that wasn't there was upset because we were laughing.

Our sister-in-law didn't want to cry and we didn't want to make her cry.

Great advice, good hub.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 16, 2011:

I totally understand Hubertsvoice, it is a hard subject, especially if you have first hand experience of it. Good luck with your Hub article, it is important that there is plenty of information on this sensitive subject available. I would like to read your article too, please post a link back here if you can.

Hubertsvoice on October 16, 2011:

Your article is very well written, yet hard for me to read because of the memories it awakens for me, both good and sad. I started to say more, but it started to turn into a hub article, so I will continue on that avenue. Perhaps you will read in the morning. Thank you for writing your story.

Cindy Lawson (author) from Guernsey (Channel Islands) on October 16, 2011:

Thanks Hmrjmr1, I admire your Wife immensely, dignity is everything and no-one wants to be treated differently because they are dying. I am glad she chose to keep quiet about it as long as possible so people would not act 'weirdly' around her. I wish my Hubby had been able to do this too, but sadly he had no idea he was seriously ill until he was rushed into the hospital and then operated on. Even then I was told two days before he was that it was advanced and incurable Cancer, (it was considered better to give him a couple of days to rally from the surgery before telling him). This was a really hard two days for me because I had to keep acting totally normally and claiming his Doctor would talk to him after the weekend. When he was finally told his first words were "When your time's up, your time's up". The Doctor said to him, "Mr Pearce, I just hope if ever I am given news like this I take it as well as you have" (or words to that effect). In the same way you admire your Wife, I admire my first Husband, he was immensely brave throughout his short but devastating illness. I just wish he had felt able to open up and show fear or cry, but he was clearly trying to protect me and didn't, even when I told him it was okay to cry if he wanted or needed to. He just didn't!

Hmrjmr1 from Georgia, USA on October 16, 2011:

Misty - Some great info and advice, I work with hospice, Alzheimer and palliative care patients. Once things reach this point it is not about extending life it is about QUALITY of Life.

My late wife chose not to tell anyone but me and swore me to secrecy about her illness and she lived each day for several years with dignity and in a way that kept her attitude and spirits high. She remains to me a real hero (and I do not bandy that word about lightly) whose strength of character will forever be a shining beacon for me to emulate.

Well done.

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