Communicating with the Family
My friend’s mother is dying. What can I say to her family?

Few of us have much experience talking about death and dying. It’s normal to be afraid of saying the wrong thing and upsetting someone. If we don’t know what to say, we often don’t say anything and avoid the whole situation. This may be why families of people who are dying notice that friends no longer call or visit. Yet, the time when people are dealing with death is when they most need the support of friends.

The most helpful thing you can do is to listen and follow the lead of the person you’re talking to. Be attentive to all levels of communication. These can give you signs of what someone is comfortable discussing, and what areas are best avoided.

It’s okay to ask about your friend’s mom, her illness and general questions about what’s happening. If asking for details creates discomfort, be ready to change direction. It’s okay to ask if there’s something in particular the person wants to talk about. There may be memories or experiences to be shared. If you’re not sure about the direction of the conversation or about the meaning behind what’s been said, just ask.

Think about what may help your friend deal with what’s happening. Often simply being there to listen is enough. Sometimes other kinds of support are welcome also. If there’s something you can do, let your friend know it. Offer to help instead of waiting to be asked, as people often don’t want to be a burden. Ask in a genuine way what you can do, or suggest something specific.

One comment to avoid is "I understand what you’re going through." This implies that you’ve been through the same situation and felt the same things. It minimizes the other person’s experience and puts the focus on you. The other person may get the impression that you don’t understand, and that there’s no point in talking. You may say instead: “I don’t know how it feels to be in your situation, but I’m here to support you.” In general, it’s most helpful to focus on the experience of your friend and her family, and on the ways you offer comfort or help.