What to Say to Someone in Hospice (and What You’ll Regret Not Saying)


Americans buy billions of greeting cards every year. There’s a reason. Sometimes, the words just don’t flow. We need help figuring out what to say.
Perhaps that’s never more true than when a friend or family member is dying. What do you say to someone in hospice?
Rather than write more cards, we went to an expert for advice. Philip Carpenter is a program officer and bereavement specialist with the Hospice Foundation of America. He’s seen firsthand what helps and what doesn’t, and he says sometimes, you don’t have to say anything right. You don’t have to say anything at all.
OP: What does someone in hospice most need from loved ones?
PC: Typically, presence. They simply want to be around family and friends—to spend time with them, to talk with them. They don’t expect them to have magic words that make it all feel much better.
OP: What are some good things to say to someone in hospice?
PC:I wish I had the perfect words to give you on this. It really needs to be tailored around the person.
If the patient was a sports fan, it’s wonderful to continue talking about sports. If the person liked to read, maybe share books that you’re reading together, or even read aloud to the patient so you can share that memory and pastime.
The key is simply to relate to this friend or family member as you always did, as much as you can, by playing games, talking, seeing pictures, planning for a wedding, and celebrating birthdays and special events—so that life goes on and the person’s able to be included in that as much as possible and be treated as a whole person, not as just a diseased person. Your friend who has cancer is still your friend first.
OP: What will you regret not having said to someone in hospice?
PC: Most of us in life have a need to say I’m sorry for things that we’ve done wrong, to forgive someone who’s done us wrong, and to tell them that you love them and to hear that you are loved in return. Those are four principles that I think are important for most of us—maybe not everyone but for so many of us.
OP: How do you let someone know it’s OK to go when the person is very near death?
PC: I’ve heard people say things like this: “Dad, I’m going to be so sad when I don’t have an opportunity to see you every day and talk to you. But I want you to know that I’m going to be OK. I love you, I’ve always loved you, and we’re going to be fine here. You don’t have to fight anymore.”

Those kinds of things can have a powerful impact, at least on the person who says them. Sometimes we like to think that the patient really hears that, and maybe they do. But it certainly can be very affirming to be able to say that and mean it.


Leigh Ann Otte is a professional writer who specializes in senior care.
What are the worst things to say to someone in hospice? Find out in part two of this series.

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