It’s normal to feel anxious about visiting someone who is dying. Our society discourages talk about death, dying and illness, and few of us have much experience with it. It’s important to remember that even though your friend is dying, she’s still the same person you’ve always known. She’d likely prefer that you treat her as you always have.
First, you may have to overcome reluctance to discuss the illness. Each of you may want to spare the other any discomfort. Yet avoiding the subject creates its own awkwardness. Do acknowledge her illness, and even ask questions about it if you want.
This lets your friend know you can handle the subject, and it lets her feel at ease talking about it, if that’s what she wants. It’s good though to talk about other things besides the illness.
The best approach generally is to take your cues from your friend. Listen and watch for
verbal and visual signs to what makes her comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s okay to ask your friend what’s on her mind, or what she wants to talk about. She may want to share feelings, or memories, or the interests you’ve shared throughout your friendship.
It’s okay to be emotional. This is a difficult time, and it’s likely to be easier for both of you if you acknowledge it, and even show it. Emotions may remain high throughout this time, and that’s normal. Be willing to share them with your friend. Again, try to treat her as you always have.
Often, people who have a terminal illness say friends don’t call or visit. This is usually
because friends don’t know what to say or do, so they avoid the whole situation. Yet,
people most need their friends and friendship when they’re facing death. Be aware of
how you can help your friend deal with what she’s going through.
Listening often helps the most. Offering assistance can also be helpful. If this is
something you can offer, let her know it. Many people don’t want to be a burden when
they’re ill, and are reluctant to ask for help. So it’s better to offer help rather than wait to
be asked. In every conversation, you may want to ask in a genuine way if there’s
anything you can do for her, or you may want to offer something specific.
If your friend is a colleague, you may want to let people at work know that you’re going
to visit her. They may have greetings, or a card they want you to take along. Presenting
these can be a good way to start your visit, especially if you’re nervous about what to say.
The first conversation with someone who has a terminal illness is often the hardest. It
does get easier. You’ll become more comfortable as you continue to visit and talk.
I Don’t Know What to Say: How to Help and Support Someone Who is Dying
by Dr. Robert Buckman