But I Don't Know What to Say...

Though words often fail us when friends or family face a terminal illness, they're often all we have left.

Words fail most of us when someone we love is dying. But beyond hugs, words are what we have left. The following was compiled with the help of several terminally ill friends and advice from others who work with individuals facing life's end.



Strange as it sounds, the terminal diagnosis is often the "easy" part. After the diagnosis comes breaking the news to friends and family, dealing with colleagues and neighbors, finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable.

"Somehow it seems a little unfair," says one 55-year-old woman suffering from metastasized breast cancer. "I weigh my words to avoid burdening my friends, and they stay away because they think they don't know what words to use."

Don't let a concern for saying the "wrong thing" keep you away from a friend or loved one who's facing death. The best solution is often to say nothing at all, simply to be present. Or, if you are a close friend, to say, "I love you" and let it go at that. "I love you," according to the woman above, "is sort of a generic OK expression in the case of those who are dying."

Simple expressions of concern are what most of us, living or dying, welcome, especially if the expression comes from a good listener. Critical to talking with someone who is dying is practicing the art of listening: be present and wait; or ask a question and wait. Try to avoid offering instant solutions or pleasantries, instead saying, "That must be awful/gratifying/painful/frustrating/wonderful," or whatever single word fits.

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One man uses this effective greeting with a close friend who is dying, pausing quietly between phrases: "How are you doing physically?"... "How are you doing emotionally?"... "How are you doing spiritually?"

"It's important to differentiate between 'spiritual' and 'religious'," says Sara, another woman in her fifties with cancer now defying intervention. "People willing to share their thoughts on the possibilities of something more than this mortal life have been really helpful to me. But I know others who want to dump their own religious certainties on me and that can be terribly offensive." The "just listen" admonition may be particularly appropriate here.

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Fran Johns
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