Avoid Saying Hurtful Things to a Dying Loved One

Hand of senior woman on shoulder of her husband

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There are helpful and loving actions you can take to support a dying friend or loved one. Learning how to support your loved one is one of the best approaches you can take in an otherwise extremely difficult, uncomfortable, or painful situation. But in addition to doing the helpful things, there are also things you shouldn't do. Learn how to avoid these common mistakes and pitfalls when navigating the difficult journey of the end of life with these five don'ts.

Don't Show Too Much Worry or Pessimism

You want to show your loved one concern — that you care about what’s happening to them and are worried about their well-being. However, you’ll want to avoid showing excessive worry or pessimism. Avoid saying things like “What are we going to do,” “You mean you are never going to get better,” and “Enjoy every minute now because it’s only going to get worse from here.” If these sound crazy to you, they aren’t that far fetched. I’ve heard well-meaning family members say them before.

Don't Criticize the Person's Response to Their Illness

Your friend may not have the reaction that you expect to his illness. You might expect him to feel angry, to be ready for an all-out battle, or that he faces his illness with courage and strength. If his reaction is different than what you expected, you might be tempted to question it or criticize him. Instead, try to support whatever reaction he is having and whatever emotions he is feeling. If he feels supported by you, he’ll be more willing to open up and share his feelings.

Don't Minimize the Impact of the Illness

It might seem helpful to say things like “Don’t let cancer beat you!” or “You have to stay active. Keep moving!” when your loved one is feeling the weakening effects of illness. Saying things like this is actually minimizing the impact the illness is having on her. Whatever the illness is doing to her body, mind, or emotional state is real. Try supporting her by saying things like, “I know this cancer makes you really weak. What can I do to help?” and “You seem to be really down. Would you like to talk about it?”

Don't Avoid Interactions

When you’re not sure what to say or what to do and fear saying and doing the wrong thing, you might be tempted to avoid seeing your friend altogether. Doing so would not only affect your loved one but might bring on feelings of guilt and regret in yourself. This is a time to nurture the relationship you have, no matter how difficult it might be. Remember that your time together doesn't need to be filled with words or actions. Just being physically and emotionally present, even if silent, can nurture the bond you share.

Don't Forget to Care for Yourself, Too

Just as being there for your dying loved one is important, it’s also important to recognize that there will probably be times when you need a break, too. It’s perfectly normal to feel emotionally overwhelmed at times. The best thing to do during these moments is to be honest with yourself and your loved one. Tell him that you’re having a difficult time and need a break. Let him know that you will always be there when he needs you but that you need a little time to nurture yourself.

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