Visiting and Helping the Dying

Have you ever wondered how you might be helpful to someone who is dying? Or how to say or do the right thing for that person's caregiver? You may ask, "Is there anything I can do?" And predictably and untruthfully, the answer you hear is, "No, not right now." As a counselor, I am often asked how to be a helpful friend to a terminally ill person, whether in the hospital or at home. Here is my list of helpful guidelines, based on many years of observing exhausted caregivers and visitors who wish they could help:

  1. A visitor is anyone who is not one of the primary caregivers.
  2. Do not visit without calling ahead unless you have been asked to do so.
  3. Ask about a convenient time to arrive, and stick to the schedule.
  4. Ask about how long a visit is welcome and leave promptly. If you are not given a length of time to stay, look for the earliest signs of fatigue and then leave.
  5. Offer to give the caregiver a break while you are there.
  6. Ask the sick person how she is feeling. Remember that the most supportive thing you can offer is your full attention.
  7. Ask the caregiver how she is feeling.
  8. Recognize that the sick person's world is very small, perhaps only one room.
  9. Don't lie. Gentle diplomacy without dishonesty helps create trust.
  10. Check your emotional baggage at the door. A very sick person is not likely to have the strength to hear about your problems.
  11. Leave news of world tragedy outside the room. If she is watching it on TV, use the time to learn what her feelings about it are, not to expound your own.
  12. Surround this person with positives rather than negatives. This is not to suggest denying what is happening. Pollyannas and hopelessly moping visitors are both irritating. Honest concern works best.
  13. If you love this person, say so. Love heals the soul. And there's magic in the telling.
  14. Don't offer unsolicited advice. If you think your idea would be especially helpful, ask if it is wanted.
  15. Even if you can only stay a minute, sit down so that you are nearer the eye level of the person in bed. Sitting near the head of the bed and holding her hand make a brief visit seem more meaningful as opposed to waving from the door.
  16. Visit alone rather than with a lot of other friends. The temptation for visitors is too great to talk among themselves and over the bed, and the sick person often feels overwhelmed and left out.
  17. If the sick person seems more interested in TV or dozing, ask if she wants you to stay. If she does, stay even if you're not "receiving" anything from the visit. Sometimes your silent presence with or without touching is all that is necessary.
  18. Be willing to listen even to the silence.
  19. No moralizing, judging, criticizing or blaming.
  20. Never minimize the person's feelings as in, "You're not thinking about this properly...", or ""Don't you realize...", "You have to stop feeling this way...", or "Don't cry/don't feel bad..."These are ways to protect your feelings, not hers.
  21. Don't assume the person wants or is able to recover or does not want to recover, and allow her the dignity of having those feelings without arguing or minimizing the situation with statements such as "Oh, you'll be better in no time. I'll see you on the golf course."
  22. A very ill person spends a lot of time thinking about her condition. You
  23. can find out if she wants to talk about it by asking.
  24. Crying is okay for everybody.
  25. Avoid more than two visitors (in addition to caregivers) in the room at one time.
  26. If the sick person is entertaining you as a guest, let her know gently this isn't necessary.
  27. Know who is in charge in the sick room and defer to her judgment.

Things Visitors Can Offer to Do

  1. Sign up for a block of caregiving time.
  2. Organize friends to bring meals, share overnight care, and send letters.
  3. Bring pictures, decorative items, or any supply that is needed.
  4. Welcome gifts may include a stuffed animal, a journal, bath powder, music tapes, mints, incense, flowers, rented movies, a gift certificate for a massage for either the sick person or the caregiver.
  5. Offer to clean the house, mow the grass, water the house plants, take the car for service, walk the pets, write the checks, write letters, take the children for outings
  6. Remember your talents: fixing things, singing, crocheting, painting pictures, taking photographs of friends.
  7. Hug the caregiver and offer encouragement. Hug the one who is sick. Hug yourself for caring.
  8. When the loved one is gone, offer to help take things home from the facility or return the sick room to a normal room in the home.