The end of a person’s life is an important time for friends and family members to reach out with words of caring, support, and gratitude. Unfortunately, our culture isn’t particularly comfortable with death and dying. Most of us feel stifled and awkward when we think about what to say to someone in hospice care who has days or months to live.
Confession time: I’m a longtime Hallmark writer, and I still felt stumped when asked about writing this kind of message. Luckily, I work with thoughtful people who have direct experience as caregivers and family members of someone in hospice, and they were gracious enough to share what they’ve learned.
The first is Tracy Riley, who is both a Hallmark administrative pro and an experienced hospice nurse. If that sounds like two careers, well, it is—but Tracy is passionate about both Hallmark’s mission of helping people connect emotionally and hospice’s call to care for individuals and families facing the end of life. The second is Marn Jensen, a retired Hallmark writer and editor who has seen both of her parents through hospice care in recent years. Marn also continues to stay connected to hospice through participants in her 2018 Wishes for the World project.
I’ve organized these writing tips and approaches by theme, but you certainly don’t have to stick to just one theme in what you write or say to someone who is dying. Whether you’re writing a note, spending time with them, or both, I hope you’ll find ideas for messages that offer comfort, bring a smile and, most of all, let someone know how much their life has meant to you.
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According to hospice nurse Tracy Riley, by the time a person has entered hospice care, they’ve accepted the fact that they’re dying, and it’s helpful for them to know that family and friends have accepted this, too.
“They’re tired of pain, tired of suffering, tired of fighting,” says Tracy. “You can keep praying for a miracle, but the person who’s dying needs you to affirm that it’s okay to stop fighting and to focus on peace and comfort instead.”
- “I know this wasn’t an easy decision to make. Just want you to know I support you and I’m glad you’re making the most of this time with the people you love.”
- “I don’t like this, but we’re going to do our best with this time.”
- “I’m sad, of course, but I’m also glad you’re in a place where you don’t have to fight so hard anymore.”
- “I’m praying for you to feel at peace and to know how much you’re loved.”
Helpful tip: Hospice care tends to last from several days to six months. For someone who spends months in hospice, there will be more opportunities to write and visit, so consider reaching out multiple times.
“Thank you” is one key message that writer and editor Marn Jensen tried to express often to her mother and father during their time in hospice. Gratitude for the person’s life, their caring, and their influence really does make for a warm and affirming message. And that’s true for anyone from an immediate family member to a friend to more distant connections.
- “Thank you for all the days you’ve made brighter just by being you. There have been more of them than I can count.”
- “Thinking of the good life you’ve lived, the great times we’ve shared, and feeling so grateful for you.”
- “You’ve been such an important part of my life, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.”
- “I so admire the warm, funny, genuine person you are. My life will forever be better because you’ve been part of it.”
- “I wish we could have more time together, but I want you to know I cherish the times we have had and the time we still have.”
- “Thanks for being the one and only you and for being a blessing to so many people—especially me.”
- “I’ve been beyond lucky to know you. Thank you.”
- “You’ve been the best dad. Thank you.”
Helpful tip: Embracing a gratitude mindset can help you shift your message focus from the sadness of dying to the meaning in living.
“I love you” is the other key message Marn took care to express often to her parents while they were in hospice. It’s about the warmest thing you can say to a family member or good friend, and it means even more to someone who is dying. Even if it’s not the kind of relationship where you say “love” often, this is one time of life when you’ll feel good that you did. And so will they.
- “I love you so much, Mom.”
- “Hoping you’re having a good day and sending you my love…”
- “I love you. Thank you for loving me, too.”
- “It hurts to let you go, but I wouldn’t trade one moment of all we’ve shared. I love you with all my heart.”
Helpful tip: You could also end any written message with a “love” closing: “Love,” “With love,” “Lots of love,” “Love and prayers,” etc.
According to Tracy, it’s stressful for someone in hospice to worry about how loved ones will get along without them. So even though it probably feels far from okay to lose someone close to you, it’s important to communicate that you will be okay, and that important people and pets will be taken care of, too.
- “You’ve taken such good care of all of us for so long. We’ll miss that, and we’ll miss you, but we’ll be all right. We’ll find ways to take care of each other.”
- “One thing I want to make sure you know is that I will honor you in taking care of the kids and do the same things for them that you would have done.”
- “I hope it eases your mind a little to know Spot is going to make his new forever home with Kathy and Tom. They’re happy to have him, and they promise to love him just like you do.”
- “Of course, I’m going to miss you like crazy, but you don’t need to worry about me. I’ll be okay.”
- “Maybe we’re not exactly okay right now, but in time, we will be. Luckily, we’ve got a lot of caring people around us to help us through after you’ve gone.”
- “I hope you’re not worried about anyone or anything right now. I hope you simply feel surrounded by love.”
Helpful tip: It’s fine to honestly acknowledge how awful or unfair it is that this person you care about is dying. But don’t dwell there. Try to follow the acknowledgement with comfort: “This is so hard, but it’s good to know you’re home with your family around you…” Or, “I really hate the thought of losing you, but I’m glad you don’t have to keep struggling so hard anymore…”
It’s also helpful for a person who is dying to hear they added something good to the world, their life mattered, and their influence will live on—in things they achieved, lessons they taught, traditions you’ll keep, and beyond.
- “I hope you’re proud of the amazing family you’ve raised. Thanks for putting some good humans into the world.”
- “You’re someone who has used your life to touch so many others. I’ll always feel incredibly lucky that mine was one of them.”
- “You’ve shaped our community in ways that will live on beyond you, so thank you.”
- “Okay, so clearly you didn’t invent a cure for cancer. But you’ve still done so many good things in life—for your family, for your church, in your career, and for all of us who care about you. I hope you feel great about the difference you’ve made.”
- “Just so you know, we’ll be pouring an extra glass for you at wine book club. You’ve been the heart and soul of our crew, and we plan to keep it going in your honor.”
- “I wish my kids were old enough to know you better, but don’t worry. They’re going to know all your funny stories and weird traditions. They’ll know their Papa Frank is a huge part of what makes our family so great.”
- “A friend like you doesn’t come along very often. You made so many tough times easier and the best times even better. I hold every memory we’ve made together close to my heart.”
Helpful tip: “The end of life is hard, but it can also be beautiful,” Marn says. “So be present however you can. Do your best to make it about that person and not about you or your nervousness about saying the wrong thing.”
Tracy also emphasizes the underestimated importance of humor in communicating with someone in hospice: “A person who’s dying doesn’t want everyone to act sad around them all the time. They appreciate it when someone is willing to kid around with them.”
So especially when humor has always been part of your relationship, feel free to be real and lighten things up a bit.
- “Are you sure this isn’t just some elaborate show you’re putting on before you go off and disappear to a tropical island?”
- “This whole loungewear look you’ve got going on probably isn’t your best ever, but don’t worry. You’re still pretty cool. And I still love you.”
- “May I just say that it really sucks that you’re dying? Hey, this is me here—not some kind of poet.”
- “Wow, apparently some people will do anything to get out of working. JK—I miss you, and I’ve been thinking about you a lot.”
- “Are you still allowed scotch? Because I’m pretty sure this calls for one.”
Helpful tip: Tracy also mentioned that reading cards to the people they’re caring for is a common thing for a hospice nurse to do. So keep that in mind as you choose your words and your funny material. You don’t want to scandalize the nurse…or the whole family!
Sometimes the people around the person who’s dying are struggling even harder. It’s good to reach out to them, too, either with words of support or with specific offers of help.
- “Thinking of you as you take care of your mom. What a comfort for her to have you with her. Love to you both.”
- “This must be such a challenging time for you and your family. Keeping all of you in my thoughts and prayers.”
- “It’s okay not to be okay right now. Remember that, and know that it’s fine to let some balls drop. You’ve got a lot of people who will come and help pick them up—me, for one.”
- “I don’t really know what would help most, but I figured you still need to eat, so here’s dinner on me.”
- “I know you’re not able to be home a lot right now, so I’ve been keeping the lawn mowed and the leaves picked up. No big. Just glad you’re able to be with your dad.”
- “Thought maybe you could use a little break from worrying about food on top of everything else, so we’ve got a Meal Train set up and running for you. Hope it helps take a little off your mind.”
Helpful tip: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” comes from a good place, but it puts the burden of asking on someone who’s struggling and possibly not thinking all that clearly. For that reason, specific gestures or offers of support tend to be more helpful. If you spend a little time with the caregiver, you may pick up on things they need without even having to ask.
Basically, there are all kinds of good things you can and should say to someone at the end of their life. But here are a few messages to skip:
- “I’m still hoping/praying for a miracle.” Of course, you can keep praying on your own. But when you’re communicating with someone in hospice, be accepting of the fact that they’ve moved past this point.
- “Keep fighting.” Be respectful of their decision to stop fighting.
- “Everything happens for a reason.” This unintentionally implies that the person must have done something wrong to deserve to die.
- “This is God’s plan/will.” Even people of faith are sometimes angry at the end of life, and likely to struggle with this idea. Telling them that you’re praying for peace and comfort would be a better way to go.
- “You look great!” Unless they do, but they probably don’t, and they probably know it. Just be real with them.
Helpful Tip: “Bottom line,” says Tracy Riley, “be honest, be authentic, and don’t sugarcoat things.” In other words, be your caring self, and you’ll do fine.