How to Say Goodbye when Someone You Love is Dying

By Bailey Williams on Saturday April 14th, 2018

Facing Death with An Open Heart

Talking to a dying loved one—or anyone dying you’ve known—is no easy task. Especially if your histories are complicated. What do you do with resentments and hurts? Saying nothing and doing nothing can have consequences for your own life. How do you honor your own feelings, as well as the feelings of the other person? What helps with closure, when our goodbyes are not in person? Here are some ideas for a meaningful goodbye.

If you’re not sure what to say…

Say What You Feel

Palliative-care physician Dr. Ira Byock, author of The Four Things That Matter Most, says that dying people typically want to hear and say four things: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” These phrases carry the power to mend broken relationships and to honor meaningful ones, so consider building a conversation around them. Whatever the response may be, you have done what you could to address the heart of a relationship.

If you want to feel close…

Do Their Favorite Things

Not everyone gets a chance to be there when a friend dies, especially someone who was important to us. This powerful, private goodbye can be done if you live apart or after a loved one is gone, for example, to mark a death anniversary. Doing an activity you once did together or something you remember the other person enjoying can help you feel close and hold onto a memory. Go for a bike ride, watch a favorite movie, or visit a favorite spot. You’ll be alone, but together.

If you want to feel connected…

Organize a ‘Secular Shiva’

Shiva is a weeklong, sequestered mourning period in Judaism held in the home of the deceased where family members gather. It’s an opportunity to reinforce the bonds among loved ones left behind. You don’t have to be Jewish to do it. Friends can organize one, too. New York Times columnist, Bruce Feiler, notes that mourning rituals often served as an important community-building function but are fading away.

Keep them closeDoing an activity you once did together can help you feel close to them.

Like all such traditions, they may not soften the blow of a loss, but they had the unmistakable boon of reaffirming the community itself.

If you’re afraid to say goodbye…

Remember Closure Doesn’t Mean Forgetting

Society tends to think that closure means putting hurts behind us and getting on with life. But when dealing with grief, that’s not how it works, writes Amy Florian, bereavement expert and author of No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life. “‘Closure?’ No, or at least not in the way people usually use that term. Acceptance—yes. Peace—yes. Moving forward—for sure. A future bright with love, joy, and hope—absolutely,” she wrote in Huffington Post.

Healing does not mean forgetting it; it means taking the life, love, and lessons into the future with you.

If you never got a chance in person…

Write Them a Letter

Write down all the things you wish you had said. Bottled-up emotions are unhealthy, but we don’t always get a chance to say what we need to say. So write them down. This is a way to get the words off your chest and manage your mental health, without burdening a dying person. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression. You don’t have to share it with anyone. Read it out loud at a gravesite. Or just tuck it away.




It’s Not all About Death: Conversations with Patients in Palliative Care


Am I Dying: The Honest Answer


How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

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11 Responses to How to Say Goodbye when Someone You Love is Dying

  1. I never had the opportunity to say goodbye. For years I’ve lived on none acceptance.
    Has anybody else experienced this

  2. Thank-you for drawing attention to the misuse of the word closure in reference to grief. Television and radio reporters are quick to use this word as though a destination has been reached. Whether the death is sudden and unexpected, gradual or prolonged, predicted or traumatic, a reporter has no right to make a prediction about closure. Grieving the death of a loved one is transforming and life-changing, and we cannot afford to deny the need to mourn in order to meet a timeline set by society. Closure… great for jars.

  3. I’m traveling from Michigan to Phoenix Arizona in the next 3 weeks to say goodbye to a man that I have loved first as a lover and then as a friend for the last 45 years. We have talked on the phone many times since his fatal diagnosis in October. However we want to see each other before he passes and before he’s in terrible shape. I don’t really know what to talk about. We’re very involved in each other’s daily weekly life albeit Facebook Messenger. We are both married, and our spouses know about our forty yr friendship. He is told me he would like to see me alone without our spouses. I have no issue with that in fact I’m rather relieved. What do we talk about? It shouldn’t be about the what ifs of our lives together, or should it? Absolutely I have no clue what to say to him other than just to hold him and cry.

    • Hello Carol,
      Just be present. Let things unfold as they should. Give him the space and opportunity to speak his mind. Try to recall fun times you have shared. Sometimes people are looking for permission to pass on. Maybe you can give him this. Laugh, cry, pray with him, sit in silence and just hold his hand. I will be sending you strength and peace.

  4. My daughter died 4 years ago. I love her so much. We’d had 3 years of bad feeling before this and I didn’t know she was ill til 7 weeks before she died. Grief just doesn’t describe how I feel. But we did say we were so sorry and all the past was gone. We were in the ‘now’ and I stayed with her the whole 7 weeks til I held her hands and kissed her dear face as she died.
    Now I try to look after her daughters and granddaughters with the love and care I know she had for them.
    So many regrets. I so wish she was still here. I love her so much. the memories are many but don’t make up for her warm and loving face.

  5. I lost my mother 44 days ago. She was in the hospital diagnosed with extremities in Blood-glucose levels. She was 48 years old. The one thing that’s troubling me is that I was not there with her that night. I couldn’t say my last goodbyes. I couldn’t kiss her for one last time when she was alive. This still kills me, mentally. Every second, I regret not being with her on that night. We were the best of friends and I never hid a thing from her. What should I do to console myself? I can’t depend on others. I have to do it myself. I’m 20 years old. So, I’ve got life ahead. I’m just starting to think that I’m gonna spend the rest of my life regretting that and one day I’ll die with that regret still with me. Could you please help me with this?

  6. My husband is terminally ill and in athome hospice care after almost five years of fighting cancer. It has metastasized to his brain but he is still in full control of his sanity and senses. Prince Ea shared this article on his Facebook feed and I try to read everything so as not to live a life of regret after my husband passes away.

    We have said all four of those things that you recommend to each other. And boy oh boy we really needed to say it. By living in that state of mind, it has been an absolute joy to be able to say goodbye as each day progresses. I know that saying it is an absolute joy may sound strange… but we live each day without regret and know the day is coming when he just won’t wake up. I dread that day but I will have so many happy, uncluttered memories to rely on.

  7. Always be honest. I work with children who are dying.
    The inevitable question is “You know I’m dying”
    Acknowledge it. Children need to know that someone is listening.
    This sometimes leads to them asking: “What’s heaven like”. Hum, what do you think?
    This opens the discussion.

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