Helping A Friend Who Is Dying
Your friend is dying. This is an extremely difficult time not only for you, but for your friend and all who care
about him. This brochure will guide you in ways to help your friend - and yourself - during the last days of his life.
When a Friend is Dying
Someone you care deeply about is dying. Confronting
this difficult reality for yourself is the first step you can take to help your dying friend.
You will probably come to accept the fact of your friend’s impending death over time, and it may not be until
he actually dies that you fully and finally acknowledge the reality. This is normal.
For now, though, try to accept the reality of your friend’s medical condition, if only with your head. You
will later come to accept it with your heart.
the Gift of Presence
the greatest gift you can give your dying friend is the gift of your presence. Particularly if you live nearby, you have
the opportunity to demonstrate your support by being there, literally, when your friend needs you most. Visit your friend
at the hospital or at home - not just once, but throughout the remainder of her days. Rent a movie and bring popcorn. Play
cards or Monopoly. Sit with her and watch the snow fall. Your simple presence will say to your friend, “I am willing
to walk this difficult road with you and face with you whatever comes.”
Do respect your friend’s need for alone time, though, and realize that her deteriorating physical condition
may leave her with little energy. She may not be up for company all the time.
Be a Good Listener
Your friend may want to openly discuss her illness and impending death, or he may avoid discussing it. The key
is to follow your friend’s lead. Keep in mind that your friend will experience this illness in his own unique way.
Allow your friend to talk about his illness at his own
pace. And while you can be a “safe harbor” for your friend to explain his thoughts and feelings, don’t
force the situation if he resists.
you can listen well, you can help your friend cope during this difficult time. Your physical presence and desire to listen
without judging are critical helping tools. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening
to the words your friend is sharing with you.
About Your Friend’s Illness
“People can cope with what they know, but they cannot cope with what they don’t know,” I often say.
You will be better equipped to help your friend if you take it upon yourself to learn about his illness. Consult medical
reference books at your local library. Request information from educational associations, such as the National Cancer Institute
or the American Heart Association. With your friend’s consent, you might also talk to his physician.
If you educate yourself about the illness and its probable
course, you will be a more understanding listener when he wants to talk. You will also be more prepared for the reality
of the illness’ last stages.
your friend permission to express his or her feelings about the illness without fear of criticism. Learn from your friend;
don’t instruct or set expectations about how he or she should respond. Think of yourself as someone who “walks
with” not “behind” or “in front of” the dying person.
Never say “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Comments like, “This is God’s will”
or “Just be happy you have had a good life” are not constructive. Instead, they hurt and make your friend’s
experience with terminal illness more difficult. If you feel the need to console your friend, simply tell him he is loved.
Offer Practical Help
Your dying friend will probably need help with the activities
of daily living. Preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning the house or driving your friend to and from the hospital for
treatment are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care.
If you are
unable to visit your sick friend due to distance or other circumstances, write a note. What do you say? Tell your friend
how much she means to you. Reminisce about some of the fun times you’ve shared. Promise you’ll write to her
again soon - and then follow through on that promise. Avoid sending a generic greeting card unless you’ve personalized
it with a heartfelt message.
you’re not comfortable writing, consider sending video or audio taped “notes” to your friend. Or simpler
yet, pick up the phone.
Support for Yourself
you care deeply about is dying and will soon be gone. Odds are you will need support, too, as you explore your own feelings
about this illness and the changes you see in your friend. Find someone who will listen to you without judgment as you talk
out your own feelings. And don’t forget to take good care of yourself. Eat nutritious meals. Get ample rest. Continue
to exercise. Spend time doing things that make you happy.
Many hospices offer support groups for friends and family of the dying - both before and after the death itself.
Take advantage of these compassionate resources.
Your Own Limitations
everyone can offer ongoing, supportive friendship to someone who is dying. If you feel you simply can’t cope with
the situation, try to understand your reticence and learn from it. Ask yourself, “Why am I so uncomfortable with this?”
and “What can I do to become a more open, compassionate friend in times of need?”
Do not, however, avoid your friend altogether. People with terminal illnesses are often abandoned by friends and
family, leaving them lonely and depressed. Phone rather than visit. Write if you can’t bring yourself to phone. Let
your friend know that this situation is difficult for you while at the same time acknowledging that your friend’s
fears and needs come first.
other end of the helping spectrum, don’t become obsessed with your friend’s illness or feel that you must be
her only means of support. Do not emotionally overburden yourself.
Your Own Spirituality
faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you during this difficult time. Pray for your friend
and your friend’s family if prayer is meaningful to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support
your religious beliefs. If you are angry at God because of your friend’s illness, that’s OK. Find someone to
talk with who won’t be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to explore.
Seek Hope and Healing
After your friend dies, you must mourn if you are to love and live wholly again. You cannot heal unless you openly
express your grief. Denying your grief, before and after the death, will only make it more confusing and overwhelming. Embrace
your grief and heal.
your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself. Never
forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.About
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing
clinical thanatologist. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and is on the
faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School in the Department of Family Medicine. As a leading authority in the
field of thanatology, Dr. Wolfelt is known internationally for his outstanding work in the areas of adult and childhood