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What to say to someone who is dying

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HelpingListenAvoid giving adviceAvoid clichésPlan around themManage your feelingsMaintain normalcySummary
If you know someone who has received a terminal diagnosis, you may want to know the best way to show support. Knowing what you can say to them can be of help.
Medically reviewed by Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW
Written by Lily Frew
Updated on

There is nothing easy or simple about facing death. And when a friend or loved one receives a terminal illness diagnosis, your whole world can shift.

You might have a hard time finding the right words. You may have no idea how best to support them, even though that’s all you want to do.

You may feel afraid of saying the wrong thing, but just letting them know you’re there can be of great support. You can also make sure they know you’re ready to listen.

How you can help

Three family members of different generations in an embrace, learning what to say to someone who is dying.
Arman Zhenikeyev/Getty Images

First, it’s important to know that you — and your loved one — aren’t alone.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year, over 56 million people worldwide are in need of palliative care. And 25 million of these are in the last year of their life.

Only a person living with a terminal illness knows what it feels like. But for them and their loved ones, the emotions can feel a lot like grief, said Kevin Stowe, a bereavement manager for hospice provider VITAS Healthcare.

“Some people might react with peace, calm, acceptance, resignation or determination to make the most of the time that remains,” Stowe added.

“Some will question their religion, while others will turn to their spirituality to cope. Some will turn inward to protect themselves; others will turn outward to manage their affairs, find closure, pursue their bucket-list wishes and say necessary goodbyes.”

Some 2017 research into end-of-life conversations suggested that communication needs and desires vary widely from person to person, but the conversations can be equally important to both the person who is dying and their loved ones.

Another 2017 study created dinner party-style conversations for people to talk about death and indicated that the majority of participants found comfort in spirituality when talking about death and dying.

It also noted that people were wary of having such conversations with family members and were more comfortable talking with friends about death.

No matter how someone chooses to process the news, one thing is for certain: Your loved one needs you now more than ever.

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Listen before you speak

When your loved one first receives a life changing diagnosis, remember that your interactions should be about them — not you.

“First, take cues about how much they want to talk,” said Stowe.

“Sit in that hard place with them without giving direction, without giving advice and without pulling them out. Just let them stay there and be present with them for as long as they need you. That is truly one of the best things you can do.”

Just being genuine and listening to their fear goes a long way, added Andrew E. Esch, MD. He’s a senior education adviser at CAPC.

But that isn’t to say you shouldn’t say anything at all. When you do speak, keep it simple.

“Instead of patronizing them, try saying things like, ‘I wish this wasn’t happening to you,’ or ‘This must be hard news for you to share,’ or ‘I’m here for you,’” said Stowe.

Remember you can also ask what they need and how they’d like to communicate. This helps them feel involved and listened to.

Refrain from offering advice

You can empathize and be there for them. But you can’t assume to know what’s best for them.

Give your loved one the space they need to verbalize their own needs. It’s okay to admit that this is also new and scary territory for you, said Stowe.

Ask for their guidance about how you can be the person they want and need you to be at this time.

Dr. Esch adds that you need to realize that their situation isn’t something you can fix. “All you can give is support,” he said. “Tell them that even though you don’t know what the next weeks or months hold, you will be there for them every step of the way.”

Advice is best when it’s asked for, not offered. “You’re not inside their head,” Stowe explained, “so you don’t know what they need.” If they want advice, they’ll ask for it.

Avoid common clichés

Most grief and bereavement experts agree that it’s wise to avoid certain comments while speaking with someone with a terminal illness.

Stowe offers a few common phrases that may come off as insensitive:

  • “Everything will be okay.” You can’t guarantee anything; what happens is out of your hands.
  • “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’s God’s will.” These kinds of clichés and platitudes are often not helpful. And to those who do not embrace organized religion, these words can even be counterproductive.
  • “I know what you’re feeling.” Only your loved one knows how they feel. And each person’s reactions are unique.
  • “How do you feel?” This is a common question that can be frustrating for somebody you already know is not doing well.
  • “Call if you need anything.” This might seem like a supportive thing to say. But the best approach is to offer to do whatever needs to be done. Let your friend or loved one give you ideas about how you can help — and then follow through.

Plan your visits around their needs

Just stopping by may not be the best move right now. If you plan to visit, call your loved one ahead of time and ask for specifics about when you should arrive and how long you should stay, Stowe advised.

This news can also create a new relationship dynamic. But try your hardest not to make things awkward.

Greet them as you typically would. Make eye contact when you visit and engage in the same behaviors (hugs, handshakes, air kisses, elbow bumps) that you always have, Stowe suggested.

It’s also important to note that your loved one’s health and emotional state can change daily. Always let them know that you really care and want to understand what they’re facing today, Stowe says.

Make yourself available when they need you the most. “Let your friend or loved one know that you’re available whenever they need,” added Stowe.

Maybe they need someone to listen, talk with, or just sit with them in silence. “Some wonderful conversations can arise out of silence.”

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Manage your personal feelings

Loving and supporting someone who is dying can take a huge toll on your mental health. To provide the best support that you can, you have to take care of yourself, too.

“Your job is to face your own emotions,” Stowe said. This process is known as anticipatory grief. It’s essentially the emotions you face while watching a loved one slip away, knowing you can’t do anything about it.

If you need some extra help navigating this difficult time, consider speaking with a friend, spiritual leader, or mental health professional like a therapist.

They’ll be there to listen and help guide you in managing your feelings and needs.

It’s also okay to ask for help if you’re feeling burned out. After all, there are other ways to make sure your loved one is getting the help and support he or she needs.

“If your loved one is referred to hospice care, an entire team of professionals will help address the physical, emotional and spiritual issues linked to the diagnosis,” Stowe said.

Maintain a sense of normalcy

Terminal illnesses can make people feel very removed from their everyday lives. “Encouraging people to not become their diagnosis is so important,” Dr. Esch said. “When it comes to serious illness, we talk a lot about quality of life, but without life, there is no quality.”

Try to remind your loved one of the essence of who they are. “If they’re a teacher, talk with them about teaching,” Dr. Esch added. “If they like to work out, offer to do that with them. Support them in doing the things that are meaningful to their lives.”

Research finds that maintaining a sense of normalcy through everyday talk and conversations is very important and came up a lot in children and adolescents having end-of-life conversations.

When it comes to treatment and serious illness, your loved one may make decisions that you don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s not your place to judge, Dr. Esch said.

“You have to put their needs and desires first,” he says. “Your role as a close friend or family member is to help the patient find their way, not become yet another hurdle for them to jump through.”

If your loved one needs help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.


When a loved one receives a terminal diagnosis, it can be very difficult for them and for those who love them. You may be uncertain about the best way to approach them.

But remember they’re still the same person they always were. Approach them with compassion, let them know you’re always there to help, and make sure you listen to them and their needs.

Remember that healthcare professionals are there to support you.

Not only can they provide palliative care for your loved one, but you can also reach out to mental health professionals to support you through this difficult period. You’re not alone.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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