“What Do I Say to Someone Who Is Dying?” Ensign, Apr. 1990, 72–73
Several years ago I found that I had cancer. The diagnosis turned my life upside down: I had to quit a rewarding job at a children’s hospital and endure endless painful tests and treatments. Though many people were concerned and wanted to help, I found that many of them felt uncomfortable and unsure of just what they could or should do. So, based on my experience, here are several things you should consider when you are wondering how best to serve a terminally-ill person.
Find out what the family really needs before you inundate them with lemon pie. A life-threatening disease takes time to deal with, so give the person and his or her family a chance to adjust. Perhaps they won’t need assistance at first, but do let them know that you care.
Check with the person or family to see what kind of service will be most helpful. I appreciated those people who were willing to give of themselves—to truly visit with me, give me hugs, and cheer me on.
When you visit, be yourself and treat the terminally ill person normally. Many people were at a loss for words when they came to see me. But I was still the same person as I was the day before I was diagnosed. I still had the same basic needs for love, understanding, acceptance, and support as before—but I needed those gifts even more.
I know that people meant well when they asked me how long I had or tried to “reassure” me with “Well, you know where you’ll be going.” What they didn’t know was that I was fighting to live! I didn’t want sympathy; I wanted strength and encouragement.
I also wanted and needed to know what was happening around me and to still feel part of it all. I wanted to share in my friends’ and family’s feelings and concerns just as I always had.
Share your sense of humor. Laughter really is good medicine. After lying in the cesium unit for many long days, unable to move and isolated in a bare room behind closed lead-lined doors, I felt like a prisoner convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. It was then that our oldest daughter came to visit. She sat down behind the lead screen that separated us and proceeded to take off her boots and socks. She slipped her socks on her hands and pretended they were puppets and spoke through them. I laughed for the first time in months. That simple act brightened my outlook instantly.
Don’t forget to share home teaching and visiting teaching messages with the terminally-ill person. I enjoyed feeling the love of my home and visiting teachers, but I particularly liked hearing their monthly messages. I needed the spiritual uplift of sharing gospel ideas, particularly since I often wasn’t able to make it to church meetings.
You might also want to consider taking the patient audiotapes of Relief Society, priesthood, or Sunday School lessons or even spending some time reading and discussing the scriptures with him or her.
There are many things you can do to support a terminally ill person. The keys to success are to be yourself, treat the person as normally as possible, and tailor your service to meet the person’s needs.—Emily Farmer, Windsor Junction, Nova Scotia