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How to Actually Help a Dying Loved One

Updated: May 4, 2021

When you first learn that a close friend or family member has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, one of your primary feelings will be that of inadequacy. This may very well be one of the most trying times in your life, but you have the ability to make a positive difference in their final days.

While you want to express concern, be sure not to be excessive with it, especially in any selffocused way that shifts the focus off of their need for consolation to your need for it. Be mindful of asking them too much detail about their condition, until they are ready to share. Remember that they’ve likely already talked endlessly to doctors. When they are ready to talk, be willing to listen, even if it uncomfortable for you. Talking things through may have more to do with their need to sort it through themselves, so be an open-minded open-hearted sounding board who doesn’t fall apart when they are admitting their fears and concerns. Ask questions and affirm their feelings. Avoid comments that may make them feel you are minimizing their situation, such as “You got this” or “You can beat this” when it isn’t likely that they do or can.

Don’t say “Let me know what I can do to help.” All this does is placate your own need to feel like you offered. And it puts the onus on them to reach out. Instead, anticipate ways in which you can be useful to them and do those things, such as bringing them a meal, cleaning their kitchen or taking their car for an oil change.

Be present. You don’t have to be “doing tasks” or filling time by talking, while with them. Be a calming presence for them. The most crucial step here is to reach a peaceful acceptance of their death yourself. They need for you to be on the same page as them, not only as far as their level of acceptance, but also in their level of faith. If they believe in God and an after-life, support their beliefs, regardless of your own. If they don’t believe, but you do, ask them if they’d like to hear another perspective. If they do, be graceful with that conversation, and avoid any comments that may make them feel guilty or regretful. If they are interested, offer to bring in a chaplain to speak to them.

Do not hover or make them feel like an invalid. Help them maintain a normal life for themselves, allowing them to do all that they are capable of, for as long as possible. It is imperative that they are allowed maximum dignity and control, for their physical well-being as well as their mental and emotional state.

Reassure them that their life has mattered and still matters. They may want to “give up” and give in to depression and doubt. Everyone has made contributions to this world….make sure they understand, from your perspective, what theirs are.

Even when a person’s fears about the dying process have been calmed, most will likely still worry about leaving behind the people they love the most. Help them to wrap up any loose ends. A workbook and guide to doing this is “Create A Legacy of Love: Everything Your Loved Ones Need to Know (When You Can No Longer Tell Them)” by Catherine L. Turner. (

Assuring them that their loved ones will be taken care of, family members will look after one another, and that they will be remembered and cherished allows them to peacefully pass when it is time. Above all, give them permission to go.

Common End-Of-Life Wishes

“These are common end-of-life wishes I often hear:

-to maintain my dignity

-to take care of unfinished business with my family and friends

-to be able to talk about what scares me

-to have human touch

-to have an advocate who knows my values, wishes, and priorities

-to not die alone.”

Heather McGuire, Death Midwife (

By Catherine L. Turner (, author of “Create A Legacy of Love: Everything Your Loved Ones Need to Know (When You Can No Longer Tell Them)”


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