American Hospice Foundation, Washington DC, USA

Visiting People Receiving Hospice Care: What to Do, What to Say

By Nance Guilmartin

Before visiting people receiving hospice care, try assessing what support YOU need. It’s okay if you feel uncomfortable or awkward, as long as you can be yourself, so that they don’t have to worry about making YOU comfortable.

It’s not so much the words that you say; it’s the way that you share yourself — whether it’s your humor or your empathy or your gentleness or your gift of being comfortable with silence. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Try to get beyond the shock of their appearance. While it may be sad or even grim, the person you knew is still inside the body you’re visiting. You could say softly, "I’m grateful that I can be here with you today," or simply, "I’ve missed you—is there anything you’d like me to know about how you’re feeling right now or what I can do for you while I’m here?" or, "I appreciate that your sister/wife/husband let me know that it was OK for me to keep you company for a while and give them a little time off."
  • Respect their dignity. For example, if for some reason the blankets are askew in an immodest way, please straighten them up. You could say, "Gosh, let me just fix these sheets and blankets for you, would that be ok?"
  • Ask the hospice staff about what’s okay when it comes to offering the comfort of touch. They’ll let you know whether it’s fine to hold someone’s hand or massage their feet or stroke their arm. Touch is a wonderful way to connect. For example, you could say to a staff person, "This is a new experience for me and I’m wondering how I know whether it’s ok to touch my friend. Is there anything in particular that you could suggest that would be helpful and, if necessary, and if you have a few moments, could you show me how to do that correctly? Is there anything I should not offer to do that might be uncomfortable or harmful even if my friend requests it?"
  • Talk about something besides their sicknesspolitics, the latest news, an anecdote from your friendship or an update about other people you know in common. A good joke is always welcomed. For example, you could gently explore what they might want to hear about by saying "I don't know whether you'd like to hear the latest about.... (your/their favorite team; what's going on at the office; what's happening in your own life or family; about something maybe the two of you had talked about in the past that you can update them about...)
  • Tell them what they mean to you. Do not fear tears—they are natural. For example, you might say: "One of the things that you taught me that has meant so much to me is..." or "One thing that I learned from our times together is XYZ and it's something that I also try to teach my friends, kids and clients."
  • Ask them if there are any phone calls you can make for them. For example, "I don’t know whether this would be helpful or not but if you’d like me to make some calls for you to friends or to make calls that could help you with handling details or unfinished matters—let’s talk about what I could do and if it’s something more than I can handle, we could think about anyone else who might be better able to get this done."
  • There are times when they may not seem totally lucid because of the pain medication, but they may be very aware of your presence and welcome your simply being with them. For example, "I’m wondering whether for right now it would be ok if I just sit here with you and keep you company. If you want to talk, that’s fine and if not, I’m grateful to just be with you and we don’t have to talk at all."
  • The most loving act you can do for people who are facing death is to listen to their thoughts. You could say—perhaps with a sense of humor or sincere sense in your voice of not having a clue of what they’d really like from your being there, if anything—"I’ve spent a lot of time talking—let me take a break and give you a chance to tell me what’s going on with you." Or, "I’m not sure what you’re wanting today—if it’s to have me talk about old times, new times, or simply listen to what’s on your mind. Please let me know; otherwise, I might just chatter away."
© Nance Guilmartin, September 2006.
These suggestions are adapted and expanded from an original story first published in her book, Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.
Copyright © 2002 by Nance Guilmartin.

This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

This book may be purchased at

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