What to say to someone whose parent is dying
Dying of a loved one is never simpler, no matter how old you are. No matter your relationship with your parent or why they passed, it’s normal to feel guilt, anger, and sadness after losing someone close to you. If you need advice on what to say to someone whose parent has died, here are some things you can consider saying to them to help them through this challenging time in their life.
Even if you don’t know exactly what to say, there are some basic things you can do for a loved one who’s dealing with a terminal illness. Acknowledge their feelings and respect their boundaries. Please don’t push your agenda on them. Above all, listen—really listen—and be ready with an encouraging word when they need it most. The same principles apply whether you’re talking to your friend or a family member.
There are many good online and in print; if you’re looking for some guidance, you may consider buying a book like When Someone You Love Is Grieving: Daily Help for Family Caregivers by James J. Lynch. It’s also worth checking out support groups in your community, either through local hospitals, hospice centers, or churches and synagogues. If you live near a university hospital, check out its grief support group offerings; these are often open to anyone who has lost a loved one, not just students and alumni. And remember that people grieve differently; just because something worked for you doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else. Many of us find comfort in doing things we’ve done before—so keep that in mind if you want to offer help but aren’t sure how best to do so.
Keep Things Light
Don’t get dragged into a serious conversation about how it feels for your friend. A cancer diagnosis may be life-changing, but ultimately everyone has their path to walk through treatment and recovery. What feels suitable for one person may not be what another person needs, and it’s okay that you can’t read each other’s minds! Listen when your friend opens up—and when they don’t. And above all else, don’t make big pronouncements like this won’t change anything between us.
Even if they have changed or passed away, their parents are still their parents. Nothing will change that—even death—and your friend knows that better than anyone else. You can offer support without good things will always stay exactly as they are now. You can listen without making promises of future visits. Let them know you’re there for them right now, in whatever way works best at that moment—even if it’s just by saying I’m sorry. It might feel strange to treat grief like any other normal sadness (like being sad about an exam), but sometimes simple sympathy goes a long way.
Remind Them They are Not Alone
Everyone grieves differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. During that time, one of your most important jobs will be to be respectful, listen closely, and remind them they are not alone. However, it can be as simple as sending vouchers or starting to call once in a while to find out how they can be. Consider bringing food over for dinner, organizing a get-together with their family, or even hosting an open house with their friends.
Acknowledging their grief openly will help them feel cared for. Not all people want to talk about their feelings; if you know that talking about what happened isn’t going to work, try listening when they need it instead. People often find comfort in sharing memories of loved ones who have passed away. Try suggesting ways for them to spend more time thinking about and sharing those memories (like scrapbooks or photo albums). Most importantly, never forget: You don’t have to say anything! Just being there for them can mean everything in such a difficult time.
Could you encourage them to vent their feelings?
Someone who’s just lost a parent isn’t always good at being around others, so encourage them to vent their feelings by asking them about how they feel or what they think. Talking about what happened and how they feel can help ease some of their pain. Let them speak for as long as it takes for them to run out of things to say. Remind your friend that these are valid emotions, regardless of how strong or weak they seem. You don’t need any more information right now because it will only distract them from dealing with their feelings. Let your friend know you’re not supposed somewhere where, even if you want to address the following questions, and that all they want to do is ask is there anything else you should be doing for them.
Tell them you are there for them
One of the things a family member will appreciate most when their loved one has terminal cancer is knowing that they have your support. Don’t tell them you can understand what they are going through.
This may be accurate, but it will not alleviate their struggles. Instead, show them by being there for them and proving yourself with action.
Just a few ways you can do that include:
- We are inviting them over for dinner or drinks.
- Give them rides if they don’t drive anymore.
- They are even bringing over hot food on days when they have chemo treatments, so they don’t have to cook or worry about getting groceries in anticipation of feeling nauseous from treatment.
Heartbreak will be one of life’s challenging chronic stressors. It can feel even worse than losing a spouse or child somehow. For that reason, you should take care not to add insult to injury by saying something insensitive in response to their pain. Remember that you aren’t responsible for their grief and loss, so your task isn’t as difficult as you think. On top of being thoughtful and careful, avoid oversharing your own experience—you don’t want them thinking about what will happen when they lose you too!