How You Can Help a Dying Friend or Loved One

When you learn that a close friend or a family member has been diagnosed with a serious or fatal condition, it's natural to ask yourself about the things you can say or do to help. It's also natural to feel your own sense of hopelessness or inadequacy.

You can make a difference even as your loved one faces his or her final days. Everyone's needs are different. It's up to you to be sensitive to a friend or relative's emotional requirements. Some people who are coping with difficult emotions may need opportunities to vent their feelings, while others will appreciate "normal" chat and interactions. Many people who are coping with a serious illness will find it difficult to spend long periods of time with others, simply because it can be exhausting.

Try one or more of these four helpful approaches.

Woman hugging elderly person
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Express Concern

Letting your friend or loved one know you are thinking about him and are concerned for his well-being is helpful. There is a fine line, however, between expressing enough concern and expressing excessive worry or pessimism. Saying something simple like “This must be so hard for you,” or “What can I do to help you?” shows your concern and your support, whereas saying "What are the odds you're going to make it?" prompts unwelcome reflection about the illness.

Be careful, too, to avoid expressing so much concern—presented in a self-focused way—that your sick friend or family member stresses out about trying to take care of you. For example, saying "What am I going to do without you?" inherently invites consolation, which is the opposite of offering consolation.

Be Physically Present

Being physically present means to simply be there, in person. You don’t necessarily have to fill the time with your loved one by talking or performing daily tasks for her. Just knowing that you are present can help her feel loved and accepted, just as she is. Depending on the situation, you might want to watch a favorite movie together, chat about ordinary events of the day, or just hang out. Being present is a way to ensure that the person who is dying feels cared for and significant.

Reach Calm Acceptance

One of the least helpful things you can do for your loved one is to continue down the path of denial when he has already accepted his current physical state or impending death. You might be tempted to say things like “Don’t give up!” or “You're not going to let this thing beat you, are you?” While well-meaning, these types of sayings don’t show your loved one acceptance.

By calmly meeting your loved one wherever he is at in his level of acceptance, you give him permission to feel how he wants to feel and let him know you love and support him just as he is.

Offer Practical Assistance

You probably want to do something tangible that helps your loved one in an obvious way—something that yields results. Offer to help her with practical things. Do her laundry, clean her house, run her errands, take her to medical appointments. She will appreciate the help and know you care enough to take time out of your own busy schedule to support her. Even more important, in some situations, is offering help and support to the dying person's family—often in the form of organizing meal delivery, picking up groceries, answering mail, and otherwise helping to tend to daily needs that may become stressful or difficult.

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.