Tips for Visiting Someone on Hospice
The Best Ways to Support Your Friend
Maybe it's a co-worker, or a family member. Someone in your church or on your bowling team or your book group. They've been sick for a while; treatment hasn't helped. Now you hear they're on hospicio.
Your friend is dying. The person you saw and spoke with so easily now seems impossible to call or visit. You put off seeing them because you don't know what to say, how to act.
Take a deep breath. This is about your friend, not you. Wise words gleaned from professionals and from people just like you can help. Hospice makes time for final words and second chances. Not only can you visit a dying friend, but both of you will be better for it.
First, of course, you should be yourself. Second, you're going to take conversational cues from your friend. Whether they want to talk about death or last night's game, you are there to listen, ask questions and keep the focus on them.
If you both sit silently, that is OK too. Some wonderful conversations arise out of silence.
Ask if there is anything you can do, from filling a water pitcher to walking the dog to picking the last of their tomatoes—long after your friend is gone.
Plan to stay 15 minutes. If it's going well and your friend has enough stamina, you can stay longer. Whether your visit is in a facility or at home, be cognizant of schedules and the patient's needs. Ask if you should step away if something needs to be done for the patient.
More ways to be a good hospice visitor:
- Call ahead and ask when you should come. Ask if you can bring a certain food or gift.
- Sit, don't stand. Take off your coat. Be at eye level with the patient. Make eye contact.
- Greet as you always have: an air kiss, a big hug, a handshake.
- If the patient is very sick, they may face away from you, close their eyes or be unresponsive. Don't be anxious. Talk quietly about a time you have shared, or mutual friends who wish them well, or even the weather. You are bringing the gift of presence; the sound of your voice or the touch of your hand is enough.
- Talk about shared memories. A good phrase to begin with: "What I know I'm going to remember is …"
- Visit more than once, or visit in other ways: by phone, in texts or email, in short videos or an old-fashioned letter.
- Read “What to say when you don’t know what to say”; the tips there are as valid for a terminally ill friend as for a duelo friend.
- Let the conversation go where the patient wants it to go. Listen to their anger or fears or tears. Or don't talk about death and dying at all, if that's not where they go.
- It’s OK to laugh.
- If they do trust you with their feelings, do not correct or pontificate or talk about your feelings. You are there to listen.
- If they are in another world, join them. A veteran may be re-fighting a battle; a 93-year-old woman may think she's in the house with her mom and dad. Don't reason with them. You could ask questions about what they are experiencing. Or gently assure them, in touch and tone, that they are safe and you are right here.
- Don't promise to come back unless you will. Say what's true: that you love them, or are praying for them, or are thinking of them, and that you are glad you visited.
- If you can't bring yourself to visit in any way, learn from that reticence. Where are those feelings coming from? What is frightening to you? What would it take for you to literally be there when a friend is dying?