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  • A gift you can offer is: When you ask someone how they are, stop and wait for the answer—be an unhurried presence.
  • Meet people where they are and take them where they want to go.
  • People don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.
  • The more relaxed and “real” you can be with another, the more you will invite them to be themselves with you.
  • Practice emotional honesty.
  • Realize you can’t fix most things. You can, however, sit with people when they are afraid.

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[toggle title=”What to Say and Do for a Dying Friend”]

What should I do?

  • Don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
  • Suggest to the caregiver, some specific way in which you could and would help.
  • Don’t forget the friend’s family.
  • Don’t make the visits long or make conversation. Just your presence can be comforting.
  • Make signs for the family door: “Visitors Welcome” or “Sorry, No Visitors Today.”
  • Bring a book or magazine for the friend.
  • Bring food for the family.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Focus on hope instead of sorrow.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable or feel unwelcome, don’t be offended.
  • Don’t send “Get Well” cards. Send “Thinking of You” cards instead.

What should you say?

  • Don’t Say:
    “I know how you feel.”
    “Things could be worse.”
    “You Look great.”
    Don’t give false hope or tell of a miraculous cure.
  • Do:
    Share honest thoughts and feelings and help the friend share theirs.
    “How are you doing today” instead of “How are you doing.”
    Talk about dying.
    Share memories.
    Spending quiet time is better than nervous chatting.
    Listen.

Source: The Memorial Committee, Unitarian Universalist Church, “Visiting a dying friend,” May 1994.

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[toggle title=”Advice to Those who Want to Help”]

How can people help me?

Don’t rush me… accept my timetable.
Don’t try to take my grief away (I wish I could).
Don’t play the waiting game; please don’t stay away.
Don’t offer a quick fix; don’t give advice.
Don’t say:
“I know just how you feel.”
“If there’s anything you need, just give me a call.”
“You must be strong now.”
“You’ll get over this… you’ll see.”
“You’ve just got to go on…”

Don’t forget me… I really need you.

Do be patient… give me time.
Do come and visit; the load is lighter when you’re here.
Do let me talk (when I need to and want to).
Do listen without judgment. Allow me to repeat myself.
Do offer practical, “hands on” help.
Do include me in your special activities and holidays.
Do say:
“I’m sorry…”
“I can’t imagine how this must feel.”
“I’ll call you in a day or so and check on you.”
“You don’t have to be strong.”
“It’s okay to cry. I’m not afraid of tears.”
“How are your days going?”
“I care about you.”

Do talk with me about the memories that mean so much.
Do mention his or her name; most people won’t.
Do plant a seed of hope.

An important rule: When grief is new, words should be few.

Source: Unknown.

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Read an adaptation from “The Etiquette of Illness: What to Say When You Can’t Find the Words,” by Susan P. Halpern. (PDF opens in a new window.)