Hospice Foundation of America

Question: A few weeks ago, my friend who has breast cancer started hospice care. I have not called her because I am unsure of how to help. I feel like there's so much to say. But, I'm afraid my emotion may upset her, make me seem selfish, or be a burden on her family. How do I support someone who is dying? -Tom

Answer: Hospice care is special because families and friends are able to offer critical support while a patient experiences the very difficult process of dying. However, the terminally ill often feel a sense of abandonment when they choose hospice, because the loved ones who should be supporting the dying are not sure of how to express themselves. When you feel awkward or helpless, follow these steps given in HFA's informational brochure, "Supporting Your Friend through Illness & Loss."

  • Venture
    Convey your empathy and show your interest and concern. Acknowledge opportunities for conversation. A simple "how are you doing?" can convey your interest and concern. After the initial response, follow your friend's lead. Sometimes he may want to talk about the experience, while other times he might want to avoid the issue.
  • Validate
    Respect and validate difficult feelings, fears, and sad thoughts. Rather than saying, "You should not feel guilty, angry, or afraid," let the person express those feelings. Asking "What makes you angry?" or "I understand you're frightened," allows individuals to further explore their feelings. Share advice when asked, but mostly listen.
  • Volunteer
    Help in tangible ways and volunteer to do specific things. It is not enough to say, "Is there anything I can do?" A person living with illness or caring for someone who is, may be too stressed to consider how you might help, or might believe you are just trying to be polite. Tangible acts such as cooking food, helping with chores, or assisting in caregiving, can mean so much to friends in crisis.

Copyright 2008 Hospice Foundation of America. All Rights Reserved.

Top Tip

Realize that you do not have to struggle alone. We all can share our grief with family and friends. Seek help from clergy or counselors. Hospices and funeral homes may be able to suggest mutual support groups. And librarians and bookstores can recommend books that can assist as you grieve.

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