Saying goodbye isn’t easy. There are break ups, tearful farewells at airports and awkward workplace departures. It’s not often we knowingly see someone for the last time.
Choosing to say goodbye to a friend or loved one who is dying can be challenging. I recently got a call from a friend about this. She was about to make a final hospital visit to a dying colleague. “What do I say?” she asked “I’m afraid I’ll bugger it up!”
An evergreen piece of advice about what to do or say in difficult circumstances is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What would you like to receive or hear if you were dying? What type of a farewell visit would you prefer?
Tips on how to say goodbye for the last time
As all relationships differ, follow the advice that feels most authentic for you. Here are some things to consider when saying goodbye to someone who is dying:
- Don’t make it all about you.
- It’s ok to say you’ll miss them.
- Tell them all the things you love and admire about them.
- Share your happiest memories together.
- “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” might offer am opportunity to find out what’s on their mind, rather than asking “how are you?”
- Follow their lead – for example, whether they do or don’t want to talk about dying, their funeral or how they’re feeling.
- Listen, don’t shut down what they’re saying, even if it feels uncomfortable for you.
- It’s ok to say you feel sad or uncomfortable, but own it rather than making them feel responsible for your feelings.
- It’s ok to laugh. Just because they’re dying doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of humour.
- Be conscious of their needs. If they’re tired, in pain or had a lot of visitors, keep your visit short (unless they ask you to stay longer).
- Most of all be yourself – they want to spend time with their friend/loved one, not someone whose uncomfortable pretending to be something that they’re not.
Assure your loved one that you’ll never forget them.
Most of all assure the person who is dying that you’ll never forget them. This is the number one tip from a nurse who has worked in palliative care for decades. We all want to be remembered fondly for who we were, quirks and all.
Being there towards the end
Sometimes when we gather the strength to say goodbye, our friend or loved one is drowsy, sleeping or unconscious. Research suggests that even when not appearing to be conscious, we can often hear what someone is saying, or be aware of touch and other senses.
It can be comforting to hold their hand and say everything you planned, especially what you love about them, some happy memories and that you’ll never forget them.
As the end of life draws closer, it can be an absolute honour to be with someone when they die. But keep in mind death is not always like how it’s portrayed in the movies.
If you’re unsure what the process is like and what to do, Dying Matters has collated some useful information about what it’s like to be with someone as they die.
A final goodbye
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to say goodbye. While in an ideal world we do our best and have no regrets, the world of death and dying can be daunting. Often people’s biggest regrets in these circumstances are about what they didn’t do, rather than what they did.
I came across a delightful farewell story on Tony Wilson’s Speakola site (a useful place to find inspiration for many different kinds of speeches). In her eulogy, Karen shares a beautiful account of one of her last visits to her friend Rachel. It’s also a great example of how to do a eulogy, especially for a dear friend who dies too young.
August 8th is Dying to Know You Day, a global initiative to bring to life conversations and community actions around death, dying and bereavement.