Verbal paralysis at death’s bedside – by Terry Howard

I received this email a while back. Truth is, when faced with touchy issues, even the well-spoken can find themselves tongue-tied with no idea what to say, let alone do.

“Terry, in two weeks I will visit a lifelong friend who has spreading colon cancer. Two years ago, I visited another lifelong friend who was suffering from lung cancer. It was on New Year’s Day. I searched for the right words, but they did not come. I was embarrassed when I caught myself avoiding eye contact. He had to sense my discomfort. Instinctively I knew that this would probably be last time I’d see him alive. Two months later he died. Long story short, I struggled for the right words then and I will struggle for the right words and the right behaviors in two weeks. What do I say and what do I do?”

My hunch is that I’m not the only one who can identify with this conundrum. And because I didn’t have all the answers, I shared it with my global network and asked for their advice. Here’s what they suggested:

  • Ask your friend (or close family member) if they want visitors. Don’t assume they do. Today might not be a good day. Ask when a good time is. Some people feel better in the morning, some in the afternoon.
  • Take your cues from your friend (or family) on how long to stay. Are they yawning? Are they not talking as much as at the beginning of the visit? They just may want you to leave but don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying that. If you are visiting with a group, avoid having everyone staring at your friend as if he/she is “on display.” Initiate conversations with others in the room.
  • There is one key question that we all will likely ask someone who is battling an illness – that is, “how are you feeling” A very small change to that question can bring about a different and more intimate and relevant dialogue. Try asking “what are you feeling” instead. This tends to take the focus away from the physical and moves it to the more important focus of the emotional and psychological aspects, which is where friends can really provide support.
  • Say, “Being with you is something I’ve looked forward to.” Then wait to see where it goes from there. Sometimes they will want to engage in light talk and other times something more serious.
  • Touch is valuable. If your relationship would have included a hug or shaking hands, do so but take your clues from them (depending on if they are frail, the hug may need to be gentle.) During a time when the patient loses all sense of dignity, privacy and humanity, feeling the presence of another can be very healing. Studies have shown how important touch is for children and I believe for adults as well.  
  • Look your friend in the eye. You want to connect. They want to connect. It’s awkward and it’s hard. No way around it. But the reason for the visit is to be present and giving of yourself fully.
  • If appropriate, bring pictures. Not a lot but perhaps a few of the kids’ recent school picture.  Most people are visual and giving them something to see can be a welcome distraction to the bland, white walls. It also helps you to talk about what is going on in your life.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help and give a few suggestions. Could I order flowers for your wife on your behalf for Valentine’s Day? Can I water the lawn? Can I take your car in to get fixed? Can I take your kids to the park? Can I take care of a few errands? It gives you a chance to be helpful and can often take care of something for them.  
  • Depending on how close you are, consider recommending a movie and bring your DVD player (something you know he will like or a favorite of the two of you). Keep the volume low. If/when he falls asleep, that’s ok. It is time together w/out the pressure of conversation. 
  • Talk about what was going on in our lives, making jokes, and asking about what was going on in his life. Part of treating him “as usual” means to sympathize when things are bad, but we don’t make it “about you” by crying or acting depressed.
  • Be in the moment with your friend. Hold their hand. Allow the person to feel your presence without necessarily saying a single word to them. Deeply listen and acknowledge what they are expressing or not expressing…regardless of how difficult it may be for you to hear or understand.
  • Unconditionally receive their fear, joy, anger…whatever it may be. Share a common experience that has special meaning to both of you. Express how this person affected your life. Tell this person you love them. Allow your heart to guide you.
  • Don’t fight off the fatigue. Be willing to doze off in their presence. There’s some special, something peaceful, about them seeing you in such a relaxed state…hearing you breathing and lightly snoring. 
  • What to say when it’s time to leave? I really don’t know. Pour out your soul? Keep it light? I haven’t a clue what is the right thing. But I would hope I would be able to say “You are special to me. Thank you for this time together and for being my friend.” 
I’ve sat at the hospital bedside of family and friends over the past few years and, although each situation was different, I struggled with finding the right words. So I hope that you’ll find this article useful during those inevitable times when you find yourself searching for the right words. Feel free to add suggestions of your own.
Happy New Year!

Terry Howard

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and story teller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga New Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Shenandoah Valley Hit, Catalyst, The Echo World, founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com

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