What to Say to Someone Who is Dying

What to say to someone who is dying can be an awkward moment. It can be uncomfortable to share words you have never spoken before. Saying these words is important closure for both the dying and the living.

Am I comfortable with death? I would have to say yes. In this life, I’ve had the honor to join alongside both of my parents as they individually departed this earth. The experience changed me forever.

I learned about death, and the body’s dying process. I was able to journey with them in the months prior and observe their fears, concerns, and hopes. Whereas, I used to be uncomfortable helping or expressing concern for others in similar situations, I now feel at ease. No longer did I want to miss out on giving support just because I felt awkward about it.

If you are new to this, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got ideas to meet your loved one’s needs, convey a message, ease discomfort, and show your care and compassion.

A terminally ill person in bed, a loved one holds their hands.
There are many ways to support a person who is dying.

Understanding what nearing death means

When we hear the words, “put on hospice” or “terminally ill” we think that death is happening in a week. This is not so. In the same case, someone who has cancer doesn’t mean they are immediately dying, they could go on to live for years.

Also, it’s common for a “surge” or “rally”. Sometimes a person dying surprises everyone, and continues to hang on past a predicted death date. This can come in the form as seeming more peppy, and wanting to eat. Sometimes, people will not pass if they are seeking some type of closure.

Asian woman in wheelchair enjoying a single flower held in her hand.
A dying person can still enjoy life.

It just goes to show you that we are not in charge, God is (or the greater powers that be).

My suggestion it to educate yourself about what to expect during the dying process (you nght even be reading this while you are sitting with a loved one now). Things like hearing are the last to go. You can go on YouTube and watch videos of what to expect when a person is dying or what is called “actively dying”. There will even be videos that explain certain behavioral things, like why the eyes are open. I wished I had known I had those resources at the time.

Case in point, as my family gathered around my dad who appeared to be unconscious, we reminisced about funny family events. We started talking about how much dad loved fireworks – and he started laughing!

Even when someone appears to be actively dying, you can give the gift of telling them how much you loved them, and any last parting words you want to say.

What does placed on hospice mean?

Being “placed on hospice” typically means that a person with a terminal illness has opted for a shift in their medical care to focus on comfort and quality of life rather than curative treatments.

It indicates a transition to a specialized form of care that provides support for individuals with a prognosis of six months or less to live. Hospice care aims to manage pain and symptoms, offer emotional and spiritual support, and enhance the patient’s overall well-being during the end-of-life phase (source: National Institute on Aging).

You can give the gift of telling them how much you loved them, and any last parting words you want to say.


Words for someone who is dying

When someone is dying, words can be a powerful tool to provide comfort and support. Your friend or loved one might have been sick for a long time, or a terminal illness may be sudden. As another resource, check out “Encouraging Words for a Sick Person.

Here are some ways you can communicate through words to someone who is dying:

Start the conversation

  • Be honest: It’s okay to acknowledge that the situation is difficult and emotional. Let your loved one know that you are there for them, and that you will support them through this difficult time.
  • Offer comfort: Use comforting words and gestures, such as holding hands or giving a hug. Offer words of encouragement and remind your loved one that they are loved and valued.
  • Avoid clichés: Phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “you’re in a better place now” can be hurtful and dismissive. Instead, focus on acknowledging your loved one’s feelings and offering support.

10 things to say to someone who is dying

Here is a list of ideas to say to someone who is dying. However, this is only for guidance. Your words have to come from you, not a cheat sheet. Look to your heart and your loved one will appreciate it. Remember, even when they are “actively dying” they can hear your words – don’t miss out on saying what you need to say to them.

  1. “I love you, and I am grateful for the time we’ve had together.”
  2. “You have made a lasting impact on my life and the lives of many others.”
  3. “I will always cherish the memories we’ve created.”
  4. “Your strength and courage inspire me.”
  5. “You are not alone, and I am here to support you.”
  6. “Thank you for the love and kindness you’ve shown me.”
  7. “Your legacy will live on in the hearts of those you’ve touched.”
  8. “I will carry your spirit with me and honor your memory.”
  9. “You have brought so much light and joy into the world.”
  10. “I will miss you, but your presence will forever be felt.”

Writing a meaningful card

If you’re not sure what to say, consider writing a letter to your loved one. You can express your feelings and offer words of comfort and support. When writing a card for someone in hospice or with terminal cancer, keep in mind that they may be feeling overwhelmed and emotional.

Keep your message simple and heartfelt. You could share a favorite memory, express your gratitude for their presence in your life, or simply let them know that you are thinking of them. Consider using a pre-written card as a starting point to get you started.

When my dad was dying, there was a person from his past who decided to write long letters to him. It was an incredible gift for her to give. Her and my dad’s generation were never comfortable with the Internet. This kind woman took the time to write about everything and anything. She obviously cared very much about him, and this was her way to give a gift to someone who was dying.

A man thinking about the right words to write in a card to a friend who is terminally ill.
A man thinking of what to write in a card for someone on hospice,

Verbal expressions of comfort

If you’re able to visit someone who is dying, verbal expressions of comfort can be a powerful way to provide support. It’s okay to acknowledge that the situation is difficult and that you don’t have all the answers. Sometimes, simply being present and listening can be enough.

Encouraging words for someone who is dying can include phrases like “I love you,” “I’m here for you,” and “You are not alone.” It’s also okay to express your own emotions and to share how much the person means to you. If you’re more comfortable with expressing yourself through humour and gifts, explore “Gifts for Someone Who is Dying.” However, know when humor is appropriate at this serious time of life.

When speaking to someone who is dying of cancer, it’s important to be sensitive to their individual situation. Avoid making assumptions or offering unsolicited advice. Instead, focus on offering your love and support in whatever way feels most appropriate.

Remember that there is no one “right” way to communicate with someone who is dying. The most important thing is to show up and be present in whatever way feels most authentic to you.

We’re all going to mess this up to some degree…If you want to know something, just ask me – it “bleeds” over to the good things. Other people may not be comfortable – read the signs… if they’re uncomfortable, say, “I’m sorry! I wasn’t trying to pry, I care and I don’t always understand what is going on.” That can go a really long way.

 Sara Diemer, Cancer Chats, YouTube

as lost a loved one.”

Emotional support for the dying

One of the most important things you can do for someone who is dying is to provide emotional support. This can include listening, having important conversations, being there for them, but also respecting their need for silence or solitude.

  • Listen: Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just listen. Let your loved one talk about their feelings, fears, and concerns. Be present and attentive, and avoid interrupting or trying to fix their problems.
  • Be there: Your presence can be incredibly comforting, even if you’re not sure what to say or do. Offer to sit with your loved one, hold their hand, or simply be in the room with them.

The gift of your time is so important. I know that some people have to give up their work time. I used all of my vacation time up, and I’m glad I did. I will never get that time back to spend with my mom.

Expressing sympathy or forgiveness for past wrong doings (it goes both ways) can be incredibly healing. Use all of your words – they’re free. Tell your mom and dad that they are your hero, how much they meant in your life, or share a memory of them that they were not aware of.

When I was 12, my dad taught me how to run the skidloader on our farm. It meant a lot to me. I think he was very surprised when I shared that with him one day!

It is very, very common to be scared and fear being alone with your loved one. You must stop and realize how scared your friend or family is to die. Supporting them through their last days and months is an incredible experience. Better to be a little uncomfortable now, then regretful the rest of your life. This is a wonderful way to show your love and respect when they pass away. 

Put your fear aside my friend. Tell your work you need time off. This is more important. Imagine what your dad is going through… Dying is a lonely and sometimes scary process and I’m sure he’d be grateful to have you by his side.

Reddit thread

You can also help by offering words of encouragement, such as telling them how much you care for them or recalling happy memories you shared together. Additionally, you can provide emotional support by simply being present with them, holding their hand, or giving them a hug.

You can also just sit and watch TV with them, or play music for them (such as guitar or piano). Write a poem in their honor or write a song for them. Let your friend or ill family member pick out their favorite movie and watch it with them. Better yet, watch old family movies together.

A man on his deathbed, a doctor holds his hand.
A man in an actively dying state.

Helping with closure

If you sense that your loved one is seeking closure, you might be able to assist. They might want to speak with someone before they die. See if you can connect your loved one with a video call. Even if it seems like your loved one is unconscious or in a coma, they can still hear.

If you are the person dying, allow others to care for you. [For family] you need to be there with them and accompany them… the most important thing if you’re trying to help someone is paying attention, listening, showing up, being present, praying, and showing grace to each other. That’s true gold.

Dr. Margaret Cottle, Focus on the Family, YouTube

What one person needs for closure can be very different than another’s. There is still opportunity to help. It may be hearing the words that you say you’re sorry. It’s also important to tell your loved ones that everything will be fine here, and that it is OK for them to move to the next world. This permission is sometimes all it takes to pass quietly to the next realm.

Practical help is comforting

For my dad, it was important that my mom was taken care of. He called my brother into the hospital room (for what my brother thought would be a deep conversation). Instead, my dad asked him to get a pen and paper and make a list of things that had to be taken care of on their property.

Knowing that someone is taking care of “their stuff” can bring peace to a dying person. It may even be a key gesture that brings closure to them. If your loved one is at home, you can offer to help with household tasks or errands, or offer to bring meals or help with personal care.

Giving physical comfort to those near death

Providing comfort to a dying friend or family member can be challenging, but there are many ways to show your support. It helps them and it helps ourselves feel needed. If there is an opportunity to fulfill a need, step forward and take responsibility for it. Especially if you are a close family member, you have an obligation to honor the dying, and to care for them in the examples below:

PHYSICAL COMFORT. Make sure the person nearing death is comfortable in their bed or chair, adjusting pillows or blankets, and helping them change positions.

BASIC NEEDS. You can also provide physical comfort by helping them with basic needs such as eating, drinking, and using the bathroom. Additionally, you can help by providing massage or other types of physical touch that can be soothing and comforting.

PAIN CONTROL. Physical comfort may mean the use of drugs that remove pain, such as morphine. Only a nurse or doctor can assist with that. Ask plenty of questions and do everything you can do to make sure your loved one is not in pain. Be their voice and notify a nurse when you detect your loved one is uncomfortable. If it’s the middle of the night, call someone who can address this.

A daughter wraps a blanket around her elderly dying mother to comfort her.
A daughter wraps a blanket around her elderly dying mother to comfort her.

Making mom or dad comfortable

When someone is unconscious, they will constantly need their tongue and mouth moistened. I only know this through the many hospital stays while my dad was in the hospital for pancreatic cancer. There might have been a nurse mentioned it in passing, but I really wished that it was communicated more strongly to the family.

I made it my personal committment to keep my dad’s mouth comfortable and moistened during his last days. Thankfully, I had the smarts to bring that same comfort to my mother in her last days, as well. This video about dry mouth pallative care will help you to feel more confident.

The death of my parents was my first exposure to dying. I learned so much through the hospice nurses, especially about how the human body shuts down.

Remember that every person is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to listen to the person who is dying and respond to their needs as best you can. By providing emotional and physical support, you can help make the dying process more comfortable and peaceful for everyone involved.

Practical assistance and support

When someone is dying, their physical abilities may be limited, and they may not have the energy to complete daily tasks. As a result, practical assistance and support can be a great help to them and their family. Here are some ways to provide practical support:

Help with daily tasks

Tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping can be challenging for someone who is dying or their loved ones. Offering to help with these tasks can provide much-needed relief. You can also consider hiring a professional caregiver to assist with daily tasks.

End-of-life planning

End-of-life planning is an essential part of preparing for death. It involves making decisions about medical treatment, funeral arrangements, and estate planning. If someone is dying, they may need help with end-of-life planning. You can offer to help them make these decisions or connect them with a professional who can assist with the process.

Family meeting to discuss end of life planning.
Helping your loved one with end of life planning is a selfless gift to give.

When helping someone who is dying of cancer, it’s important to be aware of their specific needs. Cancer patients may require more assistance with daily tasks as their condition worsens. You can offer to help with cooking, cleaning, and running errands, or even provide transportation to appointments.

If you’re trying to help a friend who is dying of cancer, offer to be there for them in any way you can. Listen to them, offer emotional support, and help with practical tasks. It’s also important to respect their wishes and decisions regarding their end-of-life care.

When someone’s spouse is dying, they may need additional support with daily tasks and emotional support. Offer to help with practical tasks such as cooking and cleaning, and be there to listen and offer emotional support. It’s also important to respect their privacy and allow them to grieve in their own way.

I have a “magic question” that I ask – ‘What’s the worst part of this for you?’ The response can be not what you expected. Sometimes you can make a big difference and bring peace into their lives by asking those questions [and taking action on them in response].

Dr. Margaret Cottle, Focus on the Family, YouTube

What are ‘dignity therapy questions’?

Dr. Margaret Cottle from Focus on the Family, explains that dignity therapy questions are part of the bigger concept of ‘Dignity Conserving Care’. She shares that Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov has had a huge impact on her life, and she considers him her mentor.

Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov is a leading authority on the emotional dimensions of end-of-life, and on supportive and palliative care. as having a hu “Dignity-Conserving Care—A New Model for Palliative Care, Helping the Patient Feel Valued.”

Dignity Conserving Care refers to an approach in palliative care that focuses on preserving and promoting the dignity of patients, particularly those facing serious illness or the end of life. This model emphasizes practices and interventions aimed at addressing the psychosocial, existential, and emotional distress experienced by patients, with the goal of helping them feel valued and respected throughout their care journey.

Woman on hospice care, terminally ill.

Dignity Conserving Care may involve various strategies such as maintaining routines, living in the moment, providing personalized psychotherapy, and incorporating kindness and respect into the care process (sources: PubMedCareSearch).

Part of Dignity Conserving Care is asking questions like these:

  • When did you feel most alive?
  • What were some of your favorite roles that you played in your life?
  • What are some things that you want your family to remember?
  • What do you want to say to your family; what are your wishes for them?

Your heart just hurts. What can we do? That hopelessness is very hard.

A Lesson in Dying: A Nurse With Cancer Offers Herself as Instruction in Caring

Dealing with regrets

One common theme with supporting our loved ones end of life: we’re going to make mistakes. One thing for me, it was hard to adjust to a different adult relationship with my mom and dad.

If you have never gotten past talking about the weather, or asking mom or day about their bridge club, etc. transitioning to these adult conversations will be hard.

Don’t be hard on yourself. After your loved one passes away, you will continue to process the event for years. You may be filled with regret, struggling with what you could have, or should have done or said.


The death of my parents was my first exposure to dying. I learned so much through the hospice nurses, especially about how the human body shuts down.

Stressed woman sharing her concerns about her terminally ill family with a friend.
Supportive family and friends can have their own struggles, regrets, and concerns for their family facing terminal illness. Make the most of the time you have with them!

I was 41 when my father died, and 49 when my mother past away. Adult children have to be mature to deal with death. I wasn’t at 41, but I became more comfortable with it by the time mom passed.

What I regret is not talking with my dad, and asking him about his life. We really didn’t have much of a relationship (I’m guessing a good deal of parent interactions are that way). It was always awkward with him. If I leave you with anything, embrace the awkwardness and start those conversations. God gave me months of time with him, I could have used that time better.

Take any regrets you have now, and make life better moving forward.

Supporting hospice staff

In addition to supporting the person in hospice care, it’s also important to consider the hospice staff who are caring for them. Hospice staff work tirelessly to provide compassionate care and support to patients and their families. I’ve written an entire article on nice thing you can do for hospital staff.

Here are some ways you can show your appreciation for their hard work:

  • A thoughtful note or card expressing your gratitude for all they do can go a long way in showing your appreciation.
  • Gift cards to local restaurants or coffee shops can provide a much-needed break and show your support.
  • Donations to the hospice organization or a local charity in the hospice staff’s honor can be a meaningful way to show your appreciation and support their work.

Showing your appreciation for the hospice staff can be a meaningful way to support the person in hospice care and the important work that hospice organizations do.

In conclusion

Death and the dying process is uncomfortable if you’ve never experienced it before. It’s can invoke scared feelings for both family and the one dying. The important thing is to embrace it, and accept that you have a role and responsiblity to play in your loved one’s death journey. Saying goodbye with love and support.

Family holding hands with someone in hospital bed who is dying.
Finding the right words to speak to a dying friend can be awkward, but that can change.
Renee Cavvy
Renee Cavvy

Renee brings over 30 years of gift giving experience to holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, workplace and faith events. Every life moment is cause for celebration or those times in life when we need the "the gift of support". Her mission: Let's all be better in appreciating one another, put an end to meaningless gifts that clutter our lives, and give from a place of love and kindness. This midwest mom (and grandma) offers novel and creative ideas to do gift giving better!