My friend Rev. Dan McCurdy, a pastor in Wisconsin, posted this on a Facebook group of which we are both members. I think it's one of the most important things I've seen on the internet. It's reposted here with his permission. Often times, in my experience, clergy and chaplains are looked to for this kind of ministry so that family/friends don't have to. However we often have other responsibilities, one of which is to equip families/friends to deal with these kinds of life changes.
So many people, when confronted with a dying person, avoid them because "they don't know what to say."
This is largely a byproduct of feeling like you need to cheer the other person up, or "make them okay with it." Given how rarely we are OKAY with it (especially if we love the one who is dying) this is a tall order. Luckily, it's not ACTUALLY our job.
So here's how you talk to a dying person.
1. Show up. This is 90% of the battle. So long as you aren't especially, near intentionally horrible, the mere fact that you arrived will make your visit a highlight of their day. The Western fear of death means that many people wind up dying alone, avoided by those who care for them. So show up, and you're off to a good start/
2. Touch them. This goes under the sub-heading of showing up... in the end stages of death, as people become less and less aware of what is happening around them, physical contact makes your presence a little more real. Most of the time, what is killing the person isn't contagious through simple physical contact, so unless there are signs around warning you off, feel free to put a hand on their arm or shoulder. (Washing your hands before you walk into the room, of course.) A lot of dying people go days at a time without being touched in a friendly way. It helps them feel more human in a time where a lot of their humanity is being taken from them.
3. "How is Today?" At least once, by accident, you will give your dying friend or loved one the opportunity for the best joke dying has given them... "How are you?" "I'm dying. You?" After the fun of that, a better greeting is "How is Today?" Terminal diseases have good days and bad days. This is a way to find out how they are feeling on this specific day, and lets you know what is going on.
4. Don't be afraid to talk about yourself. A dying person often feels like the world around them is gone... people around them only talking about the disease, funeral arrangements, travel plans, etc. If they ask you questions about what you are up to, don't feel the need to turn the conversation back around onto them, saying; "Well, that's not important right now..." let them dictate what is important, If that includes asking if you've beaten your high score on Candy Crush Saga yet, answer them.
5. Watch for leading questions. If they ask you a question like; "What do YOU think happens when we die," give your answer with a nutshell, and then ask them what they think. These questions are often looking for an opportunity to explore some murky concepts. Tell the truth, and listen for the truth they tell when you return the question.
6. Let them steer the conversation. If the deep talk gets to deep, they'll yank the wheel and take it somewhere else entirely. Let them. In a world where more and more decisions are being taken from them, allow them to dictate this.
7. Do not compulsively fill every silence. If they go quiet, and you don't have anything to say, don't feel the need to babble for the sake of babbling. Silence can be golden.
8. When the time comes to leave, make definite plans to come back. Whenever possible, pick an exact date and time. "I'll see you around" is too nebulous and opens up a strong possibility of "Is this the last time I'll see you." It can ruin a happy day. So be definite. It doesn't assure anything, but it sure leaves the visit on a strong note.
And finally, remember that no matter how far gone they are, until the very end, unless they were clinically deaf before, assume that they can hear you. Talk TO them when you are in the room, instead of always talking over them. Tell them that you love them, that you'll miss them, anything you need to say.
And when the time comes, say goodbye.