How to talk to someone who is terminally ill


For many of us, visiting a friend or family member whom we know has a terminal illness, may be one of the hardest things we ever have to do. After all, just what do you say to someone who has little time left to live? For some, the prospect of visiting in this sort of situation can feel so difficult that not visiting becomes the default position. This is tragic, because, armed with some helpful pointers, we all have it within us to comfort loved ones who are terminally ill, and in turn, to be comforted by them.


Prepare yourself

It’s likely that the person you want to visit is feeling fragile, whether mentally or physically, or both. So bolting in and launching into an avalanche of chatter is unlikely to be helpful. Nor is bursting into a flood of tears. To help calm yourself and to muster emotional strength, take 5-10 minutes alone, just prior to your visit, to sit and breathe deeply. Think about some of the good times you’ve spent with your friend, and times when you’ve felt close to them.

Breaking the ice

While you may feel anxious about the visit, knowing in advance what your initial greeting will be will be, is bound to give you confidence. Choose something neutral such as “It’s good to see you again,” or “It’s been a long time since we caught up” rather than anything like “How are you?”, which could be interpreted as insensitive.

Wait patiently

Communicating can be tiring for those who are very unwell, so give your friend time to reply, even if it means waiting for up to a minute in silence for them to speak. Silences can feel awkward but remind yourself that your friend may simply be gathering the strength to speak, reigning in their emotions so they can speak clearly, or thinking of the best words to say.


When someone is very ill, it’s likely that, at times, what they say will carry great significance, even if they’re speaking in what appears to be a light-hearted way. Give them space to say what they need to, by listening without interrupting. Make eye contact if it feels comfortable, or take their hand or lay your fingers on their arm if you feel it appropriate. Nodding and using facial gestures, such as a smile or a look of understanding, will let your friend know they are being heard, even though you are not speaking.

Let the conversation roam

It’s natural for conversation to come and go from things that are important. Be guided by your friend as to when they want to talk about themselves and their situation or something more general.

Be helpful

While communication is the greatest gift you can take with you on a visit to a terminally ill friend, and should always take precedence, it’s also OK to ask if you can do anything practical to help while you are with them. Whether it’s refreshing the water in a vase of flowers, to tidying up magazines and newspapers, these little gestures will be appreciated. Just don’t allow them to become the reason for your visit.

Saying a final goodbye

Only you will know how best this can be handled. But, as with rehearsing an initial greeting, it can be a good idea to have a phrase prepared. And if something else more appropriate comes to you while you are in the room, use it instead.