Words Matter: What to Say to Someone Who is in Hospice

Finding the right words to say to someone who is dying can be daunting. But feeling overwhelmed shouldn’t deter you from reaching out. Your presence is the best gift you can give to those who are nearing the end of their life.

Understanding what to say to someone who is in hospice is tricky – not just because of the emotionally-charged situation, but also because of the fact that every hospice patient is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all guidebook on what to talk about and what words and actions are appropriate. But approaching the situation with compassion and sensitivity is a good place to start. How do you do that, exactly? Below are some suggestions from Guaranteed Hospice.

What to Say to Someone in Hospice: 9 Things to Remember

Being present, listening, and validating your loved one's feelings can make all the difference when talking to someone who is in hospice. Here are a few things to keep in mind when communicating to a loved one in this situation:

1. First, show up

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when visiting someone in hospice. Where do you even start? The first step is showing up. Even if you can't physically be there, you can still call, write a letter, or send an email. Any way that you communicate your support will show your love.

It's also a good idea to show support to their family by writing a letter or an email. If you're unsure what to write to someone who has family in hospice, keep it simple. Let them know that you are thinking of them and offer your love and support – however they need it.

2. Gauge their mood

Whenever you visit a hospice patient, it's important to understand that they're also grieving. You don't know what stage of grief they're currently in, and their emotions and mental state can shift abruptly from day to day, or even moment to moment. So, try and gauge what type of conversation they're in the mood for by asking how they’re feeling.

3. Follow their lead

You might have visited your loved one with certain expectations, but don't force any type of conversation. And if you don’t know how to initiate the conversation, just ask! Ask what they would like to talk about, then listen intently with your full attention. Respect what the person in hospice has to say and be open to what could come next.

If they'd rather talk about current events than have a heart-to-heart, then meet them where they are. Your mere presence and listening ear will give comfort to your loved one.

4. Avoid platitudes

When visiting a loved one in hospice or even trying to figure out what to say to someone who has family in hospice, avoid empty reassurances. It may feel natural to tell them that everything will be alright, but this can actually have the opposite effect and invalidate their feelings of pain and grief. So instead of saying "it's going to be okay" or "everything happens for a reason", try offering comforting words like "I'm here for you" or simply listening without judgment.

5. It's okay to laugh

Hospice doesn't always have to be a solemn and serious time. In fact, it can be a joyful celebration of life. Laughing and reminiscing about old times can provide a source of comfort to a hospice patient, so let yourself and your loved one enjoy these moments of levity. 

6. It's also okay to cry

No one expects you to be a stoic rock while talking with someone in hospice. In fact, it's normal – even expected – that you feel negative emotions. Remember that your loved one already knows that you're sad, and your tears are a sign of love. Being real with your emotions can help you connect with someone who is dying, so don't bottle up your feelings. 

7. Don't be afraid of silence

As uncomfortable as lulls may be, resist the urge to fill quiet moments with words and let them pass. Sometimes, sitting in silence with a loved one may be what the person in hospice needs the most. 

8. Offer specific help

Saying “let me know if you need anything” is well-meaning but (ironically) not particularly helpful. Instead, offer specific kinds of help that the person might appreciate and find useful. For example, ask if there are any errands or tasks that you could do for them, such as picking up groceries. You could also offer to provide respite care by giving their primary caregiver a break from time to time so they can go out and take some much-needed rest. 

Other things you could do include helping with meal preparation, providing transportation to appointments, offering emotional support through listening without judgment, or simply showing up. All these small acts of kindness will make a huge difference in the life of someone who is nearing the end of their life journey.

9. Don't be afraid to talk about death

While talking about death may seem scary or uncomfortable at first, it can actually provide comfort and peace for both the patient and their loved ones. If your loved one brings up death and end-of-life matters like funeral arrangements and power of attorney, the most compassionate thing you can do is listen and respect their wishes. By doing so, you can help ensure that your loved one's wishes are honored, giving them peace. 

Remember: You don't have to go through this alone

Visiting a loved one in hospice can be an emotional and overwhelming experience. Fortunately, you don't have to go through this by yourself. Guaranteed Hospice's care teams can provide compassionate support and guidance when talking with someone who is nearing the end of their life. 

With the help of our grief counselors and spiritual guides, you can learn specific techniques that will make visiting a loved one in hospice more meaningful for both parties.

Contact our experienced hospice care team at Guaranteed Hospice to learn more and get the support you need.