If you’re reading this, you have a friend who is dying, and you’re probably dealing with a lot of feelings. Facing the death of someone you care about is extremely difficult for everyone involved, but hopefully, these words will guide you toward knowing how you can help and support your friend with loving actions during their final days.
When a Friend is Dying
First, it’s important to confront the difficult reality that someone you care deeply about is dying. It may take time to accept the fact of your friend’s impending death. In some cases, it may not be until after death has occurred that you fully and finally acknowledge the reality. This is normal.
If you just aren’t ready (or able) to accept your friend’s coming death just yet, that’s okay. Instead, try to come to grips with the reality of their medical condition, if only with your head. You will later come to accept it with your heart.
Now, let’s talk about six ways you can emotionally support your friend and make their final days precious and meaningful.
1. Give the Gift of Presence
Perhaps the greatest gift you can give your dying friend is the gift of your presence. Particularly if you live nearby, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your support by being there, literally, when your friend needs you most. Visit your friend at the hospital or at home—not just once, but throughout the remainder of their days. Rent a movie and bring popcorn. Play cards or board games. Sit together and watch the snow or rain fall. Your simple presence will say to your friend, “I am willing to walk this difficult road with you and face with you whatever comes.”
Remember to respect your friend’s need for alone time, though, and realize that their deteriorating physical condition may leave them with little energy. Give your friend time alone when they need it.
2. Be a Good Listener
Your friend may want to openly discuss their illness and impending death, or they may avoid discussing it entirely. The key is to follow your friend’s lead. Keep in mind that your friend will experience this illness in their own unique way. No two journeys are the same.
Allow your friend to talk about their illness and their grief at their own pace. And while you can be a “safe harbor” for your friend to explain their thoughts and feelings, don’t force the situation if they resist. Give them space and time to think and feel what they need to think and feel.
If you listen well, you can help your friend cope during this difficult time. Both your physical presence and your desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words your friend is sharing with you.
3. Learn About Your Friend’s Illness
It’s said that “People can cope with what they know, but they cannot cope with what they don’t know.” You will be better equipped to help your friend if you take it upon yourself to learn about their illness. Consult medical reference books at your local library. Request information from educational associations, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Heart Association. With your friend’s consent, you might also talk to their physician.
If you educate yourself about the illness and its probable course, you will be a more understanding listener and can prepare yourself for the reality of the illness’s later stages.
4. Be Compassionate
As you spend time with your friend, give them permission to express their feelings about the illness without fear of criticism. After all, everyone needs time to vent or express what’s on the inside. But again, let your friend take the lead. Learn from your friend; don’t instruct or set expectations about how they should respond. Think of yourself as someone who “walks with” the dying person, not “behind” or “in front of” them.
Never say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Comments like, “This is God’s will” or “Just be happy you have had a good life” are not constructive. Instead, these kinds of comments are often hurtful and may make your friend’s experience with terminal illness more difficult. If you feel the need to console your friend, simply remind them how loved they are.
5. Offer Practical Help
While your friend may have family around to help, there are many ways you can still assist with the activities of daily living. Preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning the house, watching the kids, or driving your friend to and from the hospital for treatment are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care. Make sure to coordinate with family members so that there’s no added stress from miscommunication.
6. Stay in Touch
If you are unable to visit your sick friend due to distance or other circumstances, write a note or make a call or send a gift or make a video. What should you say? Tell your friend how much they mean to you. Reminisce about some of the fun times you’ve shared. Promise you’ll write again soon—and then follow through on that promise. Avoid sending a generic greeting card unless you’ve personalized it with a heartfelt message.
Your friend is likely facing a lot of emotions as they journey toward death. Fear, shock, anger, sadness. No matter how they’re feeling, they need you, your love, and your friendship to make it through the coming days. Use these six actions to show your friend just how much you care and make memories that will be precious to you both.
*Based heavily on a brochure by Dr. Alan Wolfelt called Helping a Friend Who is Dying. Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about helping a friend in grief. Published with permission.