What to Say

What to Say

Talking with someone who has a terminal illness

Knowing what to say, and not to say, can help with difficult conversations when someone you know is dying.

When you learn that someone has a life-limiting illness it may be confronting. It may make you think about your own life and how you will one day face the thought of dying.

You may be worried about what to say and what not to say to the person who is ill. You may feel uncomfortable being with someone who is obviously unwell. If you have already experienced the loss of a loved one this may affect how you are feeling now. There is no proper or right thing to say. Being with someone and being willing to listen is the most important thing that you can do. Sometimes listening is enough.

Let the dying person take the lead

Ask if they want to share information with you from their health care team. If they do, you might want to ask 'What do you now need most from me/us?'

Doing something together with or without talking can also help such as:

  • look through their photos
  • read a book
  • listen to music or watch a film
  • walk in a park or garden if appropriate.

As a terminal illness progresses, people who are very ill may talk less. They may find it difficult to have people come and visit and tire easily. Prepare for shorter visits. Take your cues from the patient or carer.

The disease, or treatments for the disease, may change their mood or personality. Don't take it personally. Remember that the family carer may still need company and support. Digital apps such as the  A Better visit app from Dementia Australia might help with communication and social interaction if this becomes more difficult.

It can also be difficult when somebody has died. It is important that you acknowledge what has happened. It is worse if you ignore it and don’t talk about what has happened.

What not to say

Sometimes we say something, and it comes out the wrong way. That can happen to anyone. To help, Canteen has a list of what not to say to your friend when they or someone close to them has cancer. This can be a good guide with any life-limiting condition. Things not to say include:

  • 'I know how you feel'
  • 'Don’t worry. You’ll be fine'
  • 'Cheer up. It could be worse'
  • 'Everything happens for a reason'.

Saying goodbye

If you know someone who is very sick you may want to go and visit them. You may visit them more than once if you are very close. If their condition is getting worse you need to be aware when you say goodbye that it may be the last chance that you have to speak with them.

Sometimes people are waiting for you to tell them it okay for them to die. Sometimes they are waiting for family to accept that they are dying before they feel that they can die. You can reassure them by saying something like:

'It’s okay, you can go now,' or 'We are going to miss you terribly, but we will be alright'

If there are things that you need to say then do it now. You may not get a chance again and you could regret a lost opportunity.