There are some things that should never be said to the dying. I’ve never bothered developing a comprehensive “no-no” list but years of parish ministry have attuned me to the particularly egregious.

First, if you are approaching a bedside, try not to act like a novice Optimist Club member, all hale and hearty and booming of voice. I know you are trying to cheer people up, but that’s not the way to do it. Ginned up bon ami “let’s do lunch soon” camaraderie makes me wonder if you can see reality.

But, as somebody is always saying, where there is life there is hope, right? Good cheer is part of that, right? Sure, but let’s keep it real. For Christians the ultimate hope that cheers us is lodged elsewhere than in a firm bedside handshake.

Nobody’s getting up from this bed, understand. This room, these faces looking at the patient, those things on the wall, these are all that remain of a life that once enjoyed more, much more. Things have gotten smaller now. The world has become vastly diminished, constricted. Hope of getting the grass cut this weekend or doing any of those other small ordinary things that mark the pace and even the pleasures of our life—those are over and of no concern.

Second, don’t pester the dying with useless information. You are not there to make small talk. You are there to console. Don’t talk about getting the gutters cleaned or the driveway resealed, what you did on your last (or what you plan to do on your next) vacation, who you saw last week and how well they’re looking, or where you have to stop next after you leave.

Third, it does no good to raise your voice, as if the dying are now hearing impaired. That just may be habit, though. We seem to do that to everyone; we even speak up for the blind, I’ve noticed, and for people whose English is a second language. We want to be clear and understood, I guess. But it is condescending and likely unnecessary. So keep your voice at a normal volume.

Fourth, don’t lie. “I’m never leaving this hospital, am I?” The woman asking this of her sister had been in an out of the hospital struggling with an aggressive breast cancer for three years. This time she was not leaving and she intuitively knew it. But nobody told her that, not directly, and when she asked now, her sister told her she “shouldn’t talk like that.”

For all our supposed openness to death—hospice, death awareness, and the like—I have encountered only one doctor who ever directly told a patient her illness was unto death. But those dying know and they know a lie when they hear it.

Finally, all you caregivers, family and pros—stop talking about the patient. Instead, talk to the patient. It hardly matters if he or she can reply, because at this point it isn’t about the patient. It is about you and how important it is for you to remember there is a person before you.

If you want to be a consoling presence, show a little gravitas. Do not, for instance complain, as I once heard a son say to his father, that moving him from bed to wheel chair was like hefting “dead weight.” And do not behave like the woman who told the dying father’s daughter she shouldn’t cry in front of him; might make him sad. In fact, say nothing to the grieving except how sorry you are for their grief.

If you must speak, remember, recall, and reminisce aloud with the patient, and say what they have meant to you and how deeply you love them. While saying this you must touch—hold a hand, caress a forehead, squeeze an arm.

Speak of memories, and touch like this:

She leans forward, his daughter, and she brushes her nose against his, moving side to side. “Remember the ‘Eskimo kisses’ you gave me?” He smiles, as his arm reaches up around her neck.

Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published this month by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.

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Articles by Russell E. Saltzman

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