Linda Lewis Griffith

What to say at the end

‘My friend just received a horrible diagnosis,” a man recently confided to me. “I want to support him through his illness. But I just don’t know what to say.”

The serious illness of a close friend or loved one can throw us into emotional turmoil. We’re saddened by the news. We’re equally upended by the close proximity to our own frailty and death. “This could have been me,” we secretly say to ourselves. The diagnosis is peripherally ours.

As a result, we’re confused about our role in another’s illness. Should we distract them? Ask pointed medical questions? Pretend as if nothing has happened?

Below are suggestions about talking to someone who is terminally ill:

Be present. Stop by for a visit. Call and chat on the phone. Stroke your girlfriend’s hair. Read a book to Dad as he receives chemo. Your acts needn’t be heroic. They may even seem inconsequential in light of the severity of the situation. Still your presence sends an all-important message: “I’m here for you.”

Don’t try to be a therapist. You needn’t delve into the patient’s fears or attempt to relieve underlying depression. You’re quickly apt to get in over your head. Besides, the patient needs your love and friendship. Save professional assistance for the professionals.

Ask how you can help. Call and ask what needs you can fill. Perhaps you can drive the carpool or temporarily board the cat. The patient may need assistance getting to doctors’ appointments. Placing yourself at your loved one’s disposal benefits both the patient and the family.

Be willing to talk small talk.

A terminally ill person may be eager to chat about topics outside of the sick room. Anything is grist for the conversational mill. Start with interests the two of you share, then allow the banter to follow its own path. You’ll both enjoy the psychological reprieve.

Don’t try to fix things. You don’t have to make things better. In fact, any attempts may be perceived as disruptive and stressful. Allow yourself to be comfortable within the framework of the situation. Your acceptance and caring are enough.

Be creative. There is plenty you can do to make the patient smile. Play a new game. Show pictures of a trip. Watch a ball game. Do a craft. You’ll have fun in the process. Your loved one will revel in the attention.

Invite the ill person to express his or her feelings. Open-ended statements such as “I heard about the latest test results,” and “I’m wondering what your thoughts are about what the doctor said,” open the lines for dialogue. The patient may be eager to talk further or prefer to avoid the topic altogether. Either way is appropriate.

Avoid asking “How are you?” It’s likely to elicit a cursory “Fine” that promptly ends the discussion. Instead, take your cues from the patient. If she looks stressed, a simple “bad day?” gets communication started.

Accept the patient’s denial. Denial can be an important coping mechanism. It occurs when the news is too frightening or overwhelming or when it threatens the ill person’s sense of control. It’s a natural form of self-protection that allows the patient to face reality as she is able. Let her know you’ll be available whenever she is ready.

Be flexible. Each interaction with the patient may be different. Sometimes he’s deep and brooding. At other times he’s chatty and upbeat. Follow his lead so you know what to do next.

Support the patient’s spiritual concerns. One terminally ill person may find comfort in her faith and request religious counsel. Another may rebuff traditional religion, preferring a personal, secular approach. Never attempt to change a person’s spiritual orientation. The choice is up to them. If a patient seems to be searching, feel free to share your beliefs. Or you can provide a cross section of spiritual literature and allow your loved one to decide.

Try these can’t-miss words. If you’re stumped about what to say, these phrases are always fitting: “I’m sorry.” “I’m here for you.” “You’re a wonderful person.” “I love you.”

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit