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Visiting Someone with a Terminal Illness: The Gift of Time

Visiting the sick

Being there—really being there for someone with a life-limiting illness—yields life lessons you can’t get any other way. The person you visit may never remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel.

The gift of presence assures that they feel loved, comforted and supported. They are not alone.

A friend of mine once volunteered to visit hospice patients. He was asked to visit a patient who was very ill and not very responsive. He wondered if his visits mattered or even made a difference.

I assure him, “Your presence does make a difference. It can be difficult to be with someone who is terminally ill; it isn’t always clear what to do, or say.”

Visiting someone with a terminal illness

Remember, intention is everything. If you rush in, make small talk and get out fast, it will show. If your intention is to make the person feel encouraged or cared about, the person will sense that, too.

It is so important to make sure you are in a place of peace before the visit. If you don’t feel peaceful and centered, take 15 minutes to quiet yourself before entering the person’s home or room.

Always approach the person slowly and quietly so as not to startle them. Introduce yourself with a quiet voice: “Hi, it’s your nephew, Jim. I would like to sit with you for a while.”

If you want, hold the person’s hand. Start by telling the person what you are doing. “Cheryl, I am going to hold your hand now.” Another option is to put the person’s hand on top of yours. That way if the person does not like touch, they can pull away.

If the person has a book or newspaper by their bed, read it softly to them.

If the person appears to be in and out of sleep, that is okay. They will know they are not alone.

Although it’s natural to be concerned about what you’re going to say, don’t worry so much about the words. The main thing is that your message comes from the heart.

Do say, “It’s good to see you.” Let them know you have been thinking of them. Or, if you’re at a loss for words, it’s okay to say, “Mary, I don’t know what to say or do, but I am here and I care about you.”

Remember to stop talking at times and simply listen to the person. If the person talks about being anxious, listen quietly. Don’t try to change the subject or silence the person. When he or she is finished sharing concerns, encourage him or her by asking, “What do you want to achieve now?” Then you can gently shift the focus of the discussion to that goal rather than the prognosis or condition. Try to keep the conversation positive.

Chatter is overrated. Be present without saying a word. You do not have to fill every moment of your visit with conversation.