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What to say (or not say) to a friend who is dying

Thanks for reading—it’s not easy to think about losing a friend, let alone what to say. 

I’m not thinking today about the pretty picture of sharing precious moments at the bedside of someone who is resting peacefully, knowing she is about to leave as her family waits with her, holding her hand. In this loving scenario, soft music plays in the background, and you can almost feel the presence of angels, humming along. (That’s my picture of how I’d like to go.)

What NOT to say

No, I’m thinking of talking to someone with end-stage cancer, who’s in a lot of pain, and knows she’s dying, but is torn up about it. There’s nothing angelic about her situation.

Mostly, I know what not to say:

“People experience miracles every day.” (And people get hit by cars. Please, no miracle talk.)

“I know someone who went to Mexico/Argentina/Hungary/ate kale and was cured.” (Hey, the time for pulling rabbits out of a hat is over. Unless your friend has asked you to research miracle cures.)

“I read about someone who…” (Nope)

“It’s not so bad, after all, you got to…” (No, it is so bad. Period.)

“Maybe if you changed your diet/slept more/prayed…” (As if she didn’t have a care team.)

“God is teaching you something you needed to learn.” (Maybe this might be true, but let’s see you signing up for God lessons if they bring pain on a scale of 8 out of 10.)

“Everything happens for a reason.” (Thank you beloved author Kate Bowler for blowing the lid off of this one.)

“Everything is going to be alright.” (Reassuring someone that their family will be supported is one thing. Speaking in the third person omniscient is another.)

What CAN we say?

First, we have to listen—to what our dying friend wants to talk about. Maybe it’s basketball. Their pain. Sunsets. Worries about their children. Cars. Daffodils. Old memories. Times spent together. Brownies.

We join them in a dance that they get to lead.

Do they want to talk about the afterlife? Great—listen and follow. Or their memorial? Fine, you can help them plan. Or about God, faith, and what’s ahead for them? Fine. Or taxes and politics? (Yikes, well, if they must.)

You go where they go. This isn’t the time to “convert” or convince anyone.

Side note: When my aunt was dying, her son rushed to her side to try and save her soul with his religious beliefs. I know he had good intentions, but it seemed cruel to inflict his religion on his agnostic/atheist mother. Hopefully, she was beyond noticing.

It’s about being

It’s more about being than speaking anyway. Being around the dying requires us to do our inner work. I find it hard to stay present when someone I love is in deep pain—at least without feeling emotionally torn up. And although I’m a woman of faith, I can’t be with someone who’s experiencing a torturous disease that seems to have no redeeming merit without wondering why life/God can be so cruel.

When my mother was dying, I treasured my visits with her and was also exhausted by them. I needed to take care of myself. (I ate a lot of popcorn—the action of mindless, tasty chewing felt helpful.)

I still have a ways to go to address where I’m uncomfortable with death, where I have fears, and where I can’t imagine facing acute end-of-life pain.

Facing the unknowable and uncontrollable has never been my forte.

What I DO say

Having read so many accounts of near-death experiences, I’d like to think I know something about the afterlife. But truthfully, does anyone know for sure what’s going to happen?

“I love you.”(It’s heartachingly true.)
“You mean the world to me.”
“You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you for everything you have given to so many, including me.”
“Yes, it’s really shitty. (Responding to what she said.)
“I love you—always and ever.”
“Would you like some soup?”

I also pray. Not for a fix or a miracle healing—I think the time for that is over. But for peace, hers and mine, and the possibility of expanding into more Love while facing the process of dying.

I pray, too, for the courage to keep my heart open.

No pretty bows

I can’t tie this topic up neatly. I’m a learner, not an expert.

If you want to explore, I recommend the writings of the witty, wonderful, theologically-savvy Kate Bowler, who faced cancer in her thirties, and knows from experience what to say and not say to those who are grieving or facing their end.

In the meantime, thanks for reading. If you happen to be helping a friend going through a difficult passage, know that I’m sending you some light as well.

4 Responses

  1. Sally, as always you take us deep into the heart! This is such a wise and wonderful blog post. Thank you!

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