Supporting Someone Who Is Dying: What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

At the Corner of Grief and Love
February 14, 2018
Don’t Waste Your Pain
March 15, 2018

The Morrissett family recently lost one of our own. She was brave and strong and kind and had successfully battled cancer for many years. Eventually her body became weary, and we all realized it was time to let her go. It was a sad time for all of us.

It is never easy to watch someone you care about struggle with illness. It is even more difficult when you know that they have begun the transition from this life to the next. Some people instinctively seem to have the ability to somehow say and do the right thing. I watched how my co-workers rallied around our friend by being physically present for her, circling her in prayer at her bedside, and supporting her needs. I was inspired by their love and compassion.


I also came to realize I was struggling with the feeling that didn’t really know what to do. I found myself worried about somehow saying or doing the wrong thing. It occurred to me that others may feel the same way in similar situations, so I reached out for advice. This is a compilation of the responses I received, in which individuals who have been there share suggestions about how to support someone who is dying. This is by no means an exhaustive list, since the process is complicated and each situation is unique. As long as your actions are driven by love and concern it’s a place to start.

Be present. Sometimes all that is needed is the comfort of companionship, even in silence. “Don’t feel the need to fill the space with words. Your non-anxious presence will be enough.” No one wants to be alone, and being surrounded by those who care may be the best comfort as someone nears the end of their life.

Be yourself. “Talk to them like you would normally talk to them. I notice lots of people will completely change their mannerisms to a more solemn way of expression and I doubt people appreciate that.”

Be honest, and let them be honest. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know what to do, and stress that it’s not because THEY make you uncomfortable but because you want to make sure you support them in the best way you can. “Tell them that you care for them and are a little uncertain about how to be what they need, but you love them so you will do your absolute best to listen and respect their lead. I find giving permission to people to let me know what they do or don’t want and promising that my feelings will not be hurt often let’s people feel more comfortable in being open about their needs. Sometimes just naming the feelings and being open to being uncomfortable is good.”

If they want to talk about something hard, let them. Allow them to feel what they need to feel and say what they need to say, even if their strong emotions make you uncomfortable. They may be angry, sad, confused, frightened, or simply empty. Their feelings are valid and need to be expressed and respected.

Be accepting. “When I have visited with terminal friends, the most important thing in my opinion was just to put myself in a place of acceptance. Accepting where they were, what they might have looked like, how they responded. This also meant having no expectations and no needs for myself, just to be there in that moment with that person. From that place, the rest followed naturally for me.”

Be prepared for the unexpected. They may see things that aren’t there or say things you don’t understand. Their body may do frightening things. It’s a complicated process, both emotionally and physically.

Be helpful. Find out what their needs are and help meet those needs. Who is taking care of their home? Their pets? Coordinate with Hospice or other caregivers about their physical care. Are they in pain?

It can also be helpful to be clear on the wishes of the dying individual and have a plan in place for memorial and burial arrangements.

Treat them with dignity and keep them comfortable. “If helping them bathe, look away when you can, cover the area not bathing with a towel while you bathe the other side, be sure they can keep whatever privacy possible. Change the bedding often, because clean sheets make everyone feel a little uplifted. If you notice they are becoming tired, let them rest. They may feel the need to talk and visit with people around and that can be exhausting. Encourage that they voice when/if they want to talk vs when they need to be left alone to rest. Give them something easy to use to call for assistance. A button alarm, a bell to ring, etc. so they always know they can get someone if needed.”

Little things can make a huge different in comfort level, such as making sure the room is the right temperature and the lights are at a soothing level. Are their lips chapped? Do they need lotion on their skin?

Also, be respectful and never talk about them as if they are not there even if they seem to be asleep. Assume they can hear you. Many coma patients who have recovered have stated they could hear and understand everything going on around them even though they seemed non-responsive.

Find out what’s important to them. “For example, if they always read the paper in the morning, have the paper waiting read it out loud when they no longer have the strength to hold it up.” Ask if they would like silence, or would they like to have a TV or music on. Some might like it if you can sing with or to them. Music can stir the deepest places of memory. For those who were raised in the church it often incredibly comforting to hear someone sing the hymns they grew up with as a child. “If you think they would appreciate it, you could hold their hand, perhaps read some scripture if they would like you to, or sing something. And even if they are asleep or can’t talk, a simple prayer is always nice.”

Most importantly, just BE CARING. Ultimately that’s what someone longs for most as they prepare for the end of their life. They need to know that they were loved, that their time on this earth mattered.  Say the words you need to say. Share the love you need to express. Thank them for the role they played in your life, praise them for their accomplishments. Share happy memories.

Then, when they are gone, hold those memories tight with the knowledge that you were there when your loved one needed you most. The beginning of life is beautiful. The end of life can be beautiful too, even in the toughest of situations. Love is what binds us together. Love is what keeps us strong in the end.





Jennifer Roberts Bittner

Certified Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
(804) 275-7828


Serving the Richmond area since 1870

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