How to Say Goodbye When Someone You Love Is Dying

Say what you feel. Connect with other loved ones. Accept the past. Most important, move forward.
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Society tends to think that closure means putting hurts behind us and getting on with life. But when dealing with grief, that’s not how it works.

YES! Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene.

Talking to a dying loved one—or anyone dying you’ve known—is no easy task. Especially if your histories are complicated. What do you do with resentments and hurts? Saying nothing and doing nothing can have consequences for your own life. How do you honor your own feelings as well as the feelings of the other person? What helps with closure, when our goodbyes are not in person? Here are some ideas for a meaningful goodbye.

If you’re not sure what to say …

Say what you feel.

Palliative-care physician Dr. Ira Byock, author of The Four Things That Matter Most, says that dying people typically want to hear and say four things: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” These phrases carry the power to mend broken relationships and to honor meaningful ones, so consider building a conversation around them. Whatever the response may be, you have done what you could to address the heart of a relationship.


If you want to feel close …

Do their favorite things.

Not everyone gets a chance to be there when a friend dies, especially someone who was important to us. This powerful, private goodbye can be done if you live apart or after a loved one is gone, for example, to mark a death anniversary. Doing an activity you once did together or something you remember the other person enjoying can help you feel close and hold on to a memory. Go for a bike ride, watch a favorite movie, or visit a favorite spot. You’ll be alone, but together.


If you want to feel connected …

Organize a “secular shiva.”

Shiva is a weeklong, sequestered mourning period in Judaism held in the home of the deceased where family members gather. It’s an opportunity to reinforce the bonds among loved ones left behind. You don’t have to be Jewish to do it. Friends can organize one, too. New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler notes that mourning rituals often served an important community-building function but are fading away. “Like all such traditions, they may not soften the blow of a loss, but they had the unmistakable boon of reaffirming the community itself.”

 


If you’re afraid to say goodbye …

Remember closure doesn’t mean forgetting.

Society tends to think that closure means putting hurts behind us and getting on with life. But when dealing with grief, that’s not how it works, writes Amy Florian, bereavement expert and author of No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life. “‘Closure?’ No, or at least not in the way people usually use that term. Acceptance—yes. Peace—yes. Moving forward—for sure. A future bright with love, joy, and hope—absolutely,” she wrote in Huffington Post. “Healing does not mean forgetting it; it means taking the life, love, and lessons into the future with you.”


If you never got a chance in person …

Write them a letter.

Write down all the things you wish you would’ve said. Bottled-up emotions are unhealthy, but we don’t always get a chance to say what we need to say. So write them down. This is a way to get the words off your chest and manage your mental health without burdening a dying person. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression. You don’t have to share it with anyone. Read it out loud at a gravesite. Or just tuck it away.