Saying Goodbye to the Dying

Saying good-bye to a dying loved one — what to talk about, when, and how — doesn’t come naturally to most of us. All they ask of us is what people appreciate hearing at any time of life: words of candor, reassurance, and love.

It’s hard to say good-bye, but putting off meaningful conversations is perhaps the number-one source of regret.  Dying people want to hear four very specific messages from their loved ones:  “Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.” “I love you.” 

Realize that the dying person usually knows what’s happening. The person who’s dying starts to wonder if nobody else gets it. This stresses them — they have to think about others’ needs instead of dealing with their own.  It helps to reassure the dying person that you understand and are ready; in a way, you’re granting the person permission to set aside the troubles of this world.

If the person talks about impending death either directly or indirectly through metaphor, a helpful response would be to say: “Tell me more.”  If they are expressing anxiety about finishing certain tasks –You can follow with reassurance: “You’ve done a good job, you’re all set.”  Sometimes the person may ask, “Am I dying?” as a way of gauging your feelings. You can reflect the question back: “I don’t know. How are you feeling?  Others refuse to directly discuss death and their wishes should be honored. 

Being reassured that their loved ones will be fine in their absence helps people feel they can go peacefully. It’s common to seek reconciliation with people, with God or the universe, or within themselves. They often ask directly about particular relationships or express a desire to see someone they’ve been in conflict with themselves.

You may be advised to let your dying loved one know that you are OK with them leaving you. But you don’t feel OK about it and the words are too hard to say.  It may be easier to say: “You look tired, sweetheart, please don’t worry about me.” Or “You’ve been such a fighter and if you need to rest, it’s OK.”   Helping them to see that they made a difference in the world or within a particular family will fill their need to feel that their live had meaning and purpose.

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