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How to tell Someone they are Dying

Updated on October 5, 2015
There is still so much to do - the dog still needs to be taken for walks.......
There is still so much to do - the dog still needs to be taken for walks....... | Source

How to use Empathy and Honesty - If you have to be the Strong One

Our society is uncomfortable with death, we all know we are going to die but having to tell someone that their time is now, either in the next few weeks or months, is an enormous shock to the patient, and to his family.

Perhaps it would be easier rather than mention death, or dying, to say to the person :

“I am so, so sorry to tell you that your disease is incurable, nothing more can be done other than to make you comfortable.”

Provide Comfort and Personal Contact

If you love the person to whom you are talking try to be strong, hold out your hand or put your hand on their arm, look the person in the eyes, and let them know they can draw on your strength.

Once the import of your words sinks in there may be questions, in which case ask the patient how much they want to know, and repeat their answer back to them to obtain their affirmation.

As no one knows for sure, you cannot answer how long?’, but if they are strong tell them frankly what you know. They may truly want to know when, so they can decide how or where they want to die. If you feel they actually don’t want this information right now, say that you will find out the statistics and probabilities.

Neil Gaiman , the Author, wrote:

“I've been making a list of the things they don't teach you at school.
They don't teach you how to love somebody.
They don't teach you how to be famous.
They don't teach you how to be rich or how to be poor.
They don't teach you how to walk away from someone you don't love any longer.
They don't teach you how to know what's going on in someone else's mind.
They don't teach you what to say to someone who's dying.
They don't teach you anything worth knowing.”

― From: The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

Telling Someone they're Dying - The Gift of Care

Stages of Grief -

Understanding Fear and Anxiety - the Stages of Grief

Try your best to read the person’s needs with compassion and finesse, people are decidedly different in the way the handle the prospect of their death.

Fear is one of the first reactions; fear of pain, the unknown, fear of losing control of your life and yourself and fear of death.

Perhaps you will be handling the first stage of coping with grief, which is denial . The person thinks, “if I ignore this, and pretend it isn’t there it will go away.”

The next stage is anger and blaming , why should this happen to me now? This anger can hit out at anyone, so explain to family members why this is happening to help them give understanding to the patient. Explain that anger is often tied to fear as they realise they are terminally ill.

As the anger subsides, the person will begin to bargain for more time. When this doesn’t work the patient and their family may sink into depression . They may withdraw from loved ones while they come to terms with their grief.

The patient may be lucky enough, before death, to gain acceptance , not all people accept, but many die with grace and dignity.

How to Talk about Death & Dying - Tips

Crucial Questions to ask a Dying Person

• Where would you prefer to die at home, in a hospice or hospital?

If the choice is a hospital you would have to ask: 'how far would you like the Doctors to go to keep you alive?' When would you consider life not worth living - perhaps it would be if you were on a respirator, or the loss of dignity when the body functions give way. Hard questions to ask, but better than trying to decide what to do in the middle of a trauma.

Would you like to sign a ‘Do not Resucitate” order?
Whom do you wish to be with you, just one person or whoever wants to be there?
Would you like to have a Priest?
Is there anything you have not finished or need done
Is there anything you still need to say to your family?

Trish's Story:

When the oncologist said they would try another treatment, but did not think it would make any difference to the prognosis. I suggested to my friend, that she goes home and enjoys the time left to be wholly with her family.

Her husband could not face the fact he was losing her, I had taken her for two years to the Oncologist, and to the hospital for colonoscopy. Only now, near the end, could he really began talking to her about his fear, and finally accepted the inevitable, and gave her 'permission' to go. The joy they all had in the six weeks she had left was good to see, she told me she was ready to go and glad she had the time with her family, before the morphine needed to be started for the pain and the mind became blurred. Trish inspired me with her strength and belief, she was an amazing woman.

Peter's Story: Another friend, with whom I walked this road, Peter fought hard but the cancer had metastised and was too far gone. He had so much anger - his two boys were still young, and he was trying to build their life together. Peter died quickly, ten months from diagnoses to death. I still remember him looking out of his bedroom window at the beautiful garden he had planted which was now coming into summer glory and saying "It's so, so hard to have to leave now when my garden is looking so beautiful".


Although getting their life in order, sorting out wills and trusts may be relevant, achieving closure in relationships will let those dying go in peace.

If you can help the person to heal any emotional wounds, perhaps to forgive things that were done to them, apologise for things they have done to others. Facilitate the forgiveness of themselves and others will certainly set the spirit free.

 Tell the people you love that you love them, and let them show you their love in whatever way they can.

Remember the things that matter most - relationships with those we love.

Dealing with Children

Death is traumatic for the one dying and for those they leave behind. Be aware of the children. Those under six years do not understand death and think it is reversible. Pre Teens do understand as do teenagers.

All children may react by regression or reverting to younger behaviour’, they want to go back to a time when life was better. Let them talk about their feelings, listen and accept their feelings as valid and answer questions honestly. 

What Does the Bible Say About Death, Eternity and Heaven?

If the person is religious, it is astonishing the strength they gain from their beliefs. Knowing that they are going to be with those that have left before, and they will wait for their loved ones to join them in heaven, gives them the most unbelievable courage. 

The Bible says that Jesus prepares a special place for believers in heaven.

John 14:1-3 
 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.


Believers can face death without fear."

Psalm 23.4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Time does not heal the pain and the grief, but it will make it easier to handle.

Understanding Grief

© 2012 Shelley Watson


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    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 

      6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      Great hub! Nicely written!

    • CyberShelley profile imageAUTHOR

      Shelley Watson 

      6 years ago

      Rajan jolly, thank you so much for your thoughts, I hope, if I am ever faced with death from cancer, that I would be lucky enough to have even half of Trish's strength.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      6 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      The telling, is the most difficult part. And for the one who is dying, the acceptance. Dying is a reality but very few are courageous enough to face it. The fear of pain, the thought of leaving loved ones and the fear of the unknown are perhaps the most common reasons one wants to live on.

      I really wish this amongst other things, listed by Neil Gaiman, were taught in school.

      And it's so heartening to read that believers have it easy to accept and face this reality.

      Voted up and useful.

    • CyberShelley profile imageAUTHOR

      Shelley Watson 

      6 years ago

      Thank you so much mjboomer for stopping by, I looked up the fourth verse, of The Lord is my Shepherd. Trish, the friend I mentioned above, loved Psalm 23.

    • mjboomer profile image

      Mike Elzner 

      6 years ago from Oregon

      It is true, we do not want to face death and have trouble talking about death. We all will face death in our time, but I hold on to Psalm 23.4....Thanks


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