What to Say to Someone Whose Family Member is Dying
Words of comfort, encouragement, and support are incredibly important when someone has learned that a family member or loved one is sick or dying. They may feel alone, isolated, and unsupported without overt expressions of care and compassion from those around them. Showing your support during such a difficult time can make a world of difference in helping them cope with their situation.
What do you say to someone whose family member is dying?
It can be difficult to know what to say when someone is dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially when that person is a family member. It’s important to be mindful and respectful of their grief while also providing comfort and hope during such a painful time. Here are some tips on what to say and do when someone's family member or friend is dying.
How to figure out the right words to say
Coming up with the right thing to say when someone is dying can feel intimidating -- how can you actually provide comfort to someone who is about to lose someone they love? How can words comfort someone who is going to lose a spouse? A mother? A father? A child? It can feel impossible for you to do anything in the face of such difficulty.
The truth is, there aren't necessarily "right" words to say when someone is dying. There aren't any words that are going to "fix" the situation or make the bereaved feel like everything is going to be okay. However, letting them know that you see what they're going through, you're there for them, and you want to support them in any way you can has the potential to make a real difference to someone suffering a pending loss.
Before you try to figure out what to say to someone whose family member (or friend, or loved one) is dying, it can help to first identify how you want to say what you're going say. Here are some things to consider before diving into this difficult conversation:
- What is your relationship with the person experiencing the loss and the person they're losing?
- What method of communication would feel most natural and comfortable for you to express your support?
- What can you realistically offer the person whose parent or loved one is dying?
- How comfortable are you talking about difficult topics such as death and dying?
- Do you have the ability to be emotionally supportive and available for this person, should they accept your offer of support and ask to talk about it?
Here's a deep-dive into some of these questions you may want to ask yourself if you're struggling with what to say to a friend whose parent or loved one is dying.
What are the relationship factors?
Consider your relationship with both people in this equation -- are you close to the bereaved? Do you know much about the person who is passing? Do you have insight into the relationship shared by these two individuals? What type of relationship do they have? How long have they known each other? Considering these aspects of the relationship can help you figure out how to express your sympathies and show your support. For example, deciding on what to say to someone whose spouse is dying can be a lot different than deciding on what to say to someone whose parent is dying.
Depending on these contextual factors, your support can be expressed in many different ways. If you don't know the person who they're losing, it can help to address that directly (e.g "I know I don't know X well...). If you're aware of the level of closeness within their relationship, you can comment on that as well (e.g. "I know you and your father were super close and that you may have complicated feelings about his recent diagnosis.").
How do you two communicate?
Identifying what to say to someone whose mother, father, or loved one is dying can depend on the method of communication you plan on utilizing. If you plan on sending a quick text message, your expression of support and words of comfort you offer may be different than what you'd say in-person or over the phone. Furthermore, you may have the type of relationship where not much is said at all about difficult topics. It’s normal to feel a little awkward about having this type of conversation, regardless of the medium.
To address this, first consider how you two normally communicate. Do you normally chat on the phone? Are you text-only? Is this an online friend or someone you know in real life? Have you ever talked about difficult topics? (If so, have you done so in person?) Would you feel comfortable discussing these topics in person? How do you two normally handle heavy emotions? Exploring these questions with yourself before tackling this conversation can help you feel better prepared. That way, if you've never seen them get emotional before and they end up crying during this conversation, you'll have thought ahead and be able to help them through.
What are you willing to offer in terms of support and time?
When deciding what to say to someone whose parent is dying, it's important to consider the level of support and time you can realistically commit to offering. It's important to check in with yourself and your emotional availability in order to determine exactly how much help you can be. If you're stressed at work, you're stretched thin financially, and/or you're exhausted from the things going on in your own life, try to be realistic. If you don't have the time and capacity to be there physically, offer your support emotionally by asking questions, offering to talk, etc. If you don't have the emotional capacity to help them process their impending loss, consider more practical tasks such as helping them with household tasks, helping them figure out what needs to happen post-death, setting up a memorial website, planning the funeral and related events, etc.
No matter your level of availability and capacity to support them, it's important that once you extend the offer of support that stick to your word. It can feel terrible to accept an offer of support only to be told "Actually, sorry, I don't really have time for that right now."
How comfortable are you with the topics of death and dying?
As a culture, Americans are relatively uncomfortable with talking about death and dying until it absolutely needs to be discussed. Identifying what to say to your family or friends when someone is dying means you must confront your own discomfort with the topic of death and dying.
Doing this can be helpful for a few reasons: First, it'll help you better empathize and understand the emotions that come up as people approach their own death or the death of a loved one. Secondly, it'll help you grasp the gravity of their current situation and understand that it's much more than an uncomfortable conversation - it's a journey they will take through grief and loss. Furthermore, being comfortable with discussing these topics can help you feel confident about helping them cope with what lies ahead.
It can be perceived as insincere and unkind if you express a willingness to discuss death and dying with a friend or family member, but then abruptly end the conversation or make statements like "I don't want to talk about this anymore", especially if you previously indicated that you were comfortable with the topic. Therefore, it's important to recognize your own limits and be honest with yourself.
Offering comfort during a time of great sorrow is a noble effort, one that can make all the difference in helping someone process their pain. If you feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable discussing difficult topics like death and dying, try to focus on the needs of your friend or family member and offer practical suggestions or self-care activities. Using your available resources can help you do the best you can to help them through this difficult time.
Words of comfort, sympathy, and encouragement
Now that you've considered some of the important questions surrounding this discussion, it's time to consider how you're going to express your support to someone who is going through this difficult journey. Following are some different examples of sending words of encouragement or comfort to those who are struggling. If you're unsure of what to say or write to someone whose spouse, mother, father, child, or other loved one is dying -- these examples can give you a foundation to start from.
What to say to someone whose loved one is dying of cancer
Here are some examples of what to say if there's a cancer diagnosis and you're trying to help.
- “I've just learned of [Name]'s cancer diagnosis -- I am so, so sorry. Do you have time to talk this week? I want to be here for you however I can."
- “I'm so sorry this is happening and I can only imagine the pain and sorrow that comes with such a difficult situation. I'm here for you and want to help in any way I can -- I've been researching some resources that I want to share with you about supporting cancer patients, let me know if that'd be helpful."
- “I'm so sorry to hear about your loved one's cancer diagnosis and I'm here to support you in any way that I can. I'm wondering if you'd like to meet up to get some coffee and talk."
If you're trying to offer words of comfort for the entire family of the sick individual (such as by stopping by in person, sending a group text or email, or being on speaker phone), here are some ways you can express your support:
Hi all, I just learned about [Name]'s cancer diagnosis. I want to start by saying how sorry I am for the moment you’re all in. I’m here to support and help in any way possible. If anyone needs a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to talk through logistics with, please don’t hesitate to reach out. You are not alone in this journey and I am here for you. I have availability to talk this week from [time/date] - [time/date], let me know if any of those times work.
[Last name] family, during this difficult time, I wanted to offer my support and love. Please know that many people are here for you, and I'm one of them. Let me know if there's any way I can help in the coming days or weeks as you transition through this journey. While I can't pretend to know what you're coming through, I want you to know that I am here and we are all rooting for [Name].
Hello everyone -- given [Name]'s recent diagnosis, I wanted to stop by and offer my support. I know that this isn't easy and that you're probably struggling to juggle everything right now in light of this most recent news. Please let me know if there's a good time I can take the kids to the park or watch them so that you can spend time with [Name].
Words of encouragement for a friend with a dying parent
No matter how old or young people are, the loss of a parent can be incredibly destabilizing. Knowing that you're going to lose a parent or that they've been diagnosed with a terminal illness can be extremely scary and heartbreaking. If you have a friend who is struggling with this kind of situation, here are some examples of what you can say to them:
- “I'm so sorry that your [mom/dad] was just diagnosed with [illness]. I want to be there for whatever support you need -- if that means talking, let's talk. If you want to go on a walk, let's go on a walk. If that means me coming over for four hours to help research, I'm there. Please let me know when I can come by and see you this week to help out."
- “I'm so sorry and I know this is probably so scary. I can only imagine what you must be going through, and I want to let you know that I am here for you. I've cancelled my plans for [night] and want to be there to support you. Let me know if you'd like me to come over."
- “I can't even begin to comprehend what it's like to go through this. I just wanted to reach out and let you know that I'm here for whatever support or help you need. I'm here for you and I love you. I have a clear schedule for the next few weeks and would love to watch over the animals or spend some time with you in-person, let me know a good day that works for you."
What to write to someone whose spouse is dying
When it comes to someone whose spouse or romantic partner is dying, it can be hard to feel like you can offer them any real support. Here are some examples of what you could write to them:
- “I don't have any words to make this easier, but I want you to know that I am here for you in whatever way I can be. I'm open to helping with any kind of logistical tasks, researching, babysitting, petsitting, or even housesitting. Please let me know a time this week that works for us to meet up and figure out how I can be of use during this time. I am here for you and I want to support you."
- "I've just heard of [Name]'s diagnosis and want to start off by saying I am so, so sorry. I know how much you both love each other and I cannot imagine what you're going through right now. [Name] is a fighter and I want to help fight alongside you and [him/her] -- how can I help? I'd like to come by and see you guys this week, please let me know a good day."
- [Name], I am so sorry about [Name]. I cannot begin to know what you are going through, but I absolutely want you to know I am here for you in any way I can be. Please know that we are all behind you and [Name] -- [she/he] is so important and incredibly loved by so many and I want to be there to help support the both of you."
Ultimately, expressing your support and sympathy towards someone who is going through a difficult time can help them feel less isolated and more supported. Maybe you don't know exactly how you can help or you don't feel like you can do much, but acknowledging what they're going through and simply offering to be there can sometimes be enough. Try to remember to be realistic about what you can offer, acknowledge what they're going through, and let them know they're loved and supported. Reassure them that you are there for them and will be there for them throughout their journey, regardless of how difficult it may get.