How to Say Goodbye to a Loved One
First and most important: Meet the dying person where she is. She may be in denial, and denial is a fabulous crutch. You don't pull a crutch out from under somebody. Try to validate the feelings behind the denial. So imagine your aunt says, "Let's reserve a house at the lake this summer. I loved the weeks we used to spend there." You don't rush out to make a reservation; you reminisce with her about those good times. She's living in memories much kinder than her reality.
But let's say she tells you, "You know, I'm not going to live much longer." The door's open. Be honest, direct. Tell her you hate that this is happening. Tell her it mattered that she was here. Tell her how she enriched your life, that she won't be forgotten. This is no time to pussyfoot. For God's sake, don't tell her she looks great, or that she'll pull through. Pretending creates a chasm of loneliness for the dying. Can you imagine if you were in labor, and no one in the room would acknowledge that you were giving birth?
Toward the end, dying people tend to withdraw. You know how when you drop a pebble in a pond, the rings ripple out? For a dying person, the rings go in. It doesn't matter what's happening in politics or sports or the next room. Eventually all that matters is I'm hot. I'm cold. I love you. Do you love me?
At that point, all that's required is your presence. Be quiet. Put your hands on hers. That's it.
—Maggie Callanan, hospice nurse since 1981 and coauthor of the celebrated book Final Gifts