How do you say, “I Love You…” when your loved ones can no longer respond? “Can they hear? I feel silly talking to him when he probably can’t hear me. What do I say? It doesn’t matter anymore anyway.”

These are common feelings and responses when I am at the bedside encouraging loved ones to talk with the dying. We have a difficult time interacting with a dying person because we do not want to face the reality of his or her death, we do not “have the time” to be involved, and/or we do not have the emotional reserves to deal with such an intense situation. Feelings of guilt, resentment, fatigue and isolation may also cause us to avoid the dying.

Let the dying person know you are feeling fearful, sad, silly or uncomfortable.
Express to the dying that you feel awkward in talking with them when you don’t even know if they can hear or understand.

Many science journals have reported evidence of dying patients responding to familiar voices with spikes noted in EEG (Electroencephalography) waves. Although we cannot confirm conclusively if the dying can actually hear, data from surgical patients and “near death” experiences seem to indicate there is some sort of awareness to sound.

Some sample phrases could be:

  • “I love you. I will miss you. I will never forget you. Please do what you need to do when you are ready.”
  • “I am here with you. I remember the time you….”
  • “Mommy and Daddy love you. We will miss you, but we will be okay.”

Dr. Ira Byock sums up what to say in four simple phrases — “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you.” What more needs to be said?

Touch can also heighten communication, encourage family members to show affection in normal ways. It’s okay to lie beside the patient, hold their hand or stroke their brow.

Silence is also a treasure that needs to be incorporated. In my experience, dying people crave silence. I remember simply sitting with a friend who felt comfortable enough to tell me she just wanted silence as she lay in her bed for her final days. We sat for hours in silence. Idle chit chat, repeated questions and frequent noise was not what she needed.