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The Gift of Presence: Tips for Visiting a Terminally Ill Family Member or Friend

If you’ve ever visited a friend or loved one who is terminally ill, and not very responsive, you may wonder whether your visits are making a difference.

Some of the questions we hear include: “I don’t feel like I am doing anything” … ”The person is asleep, or falls asleep, during my visit. Should I wake them? Should I stay?” … “What should I be doing? Am I helping?” or  ”What should I say to the person?”

I want to assure you—your presence does make a difference. It can be difficult to be with someone who is terminally ill; it isn’t always clear what to do, or say. Therefore, I would like to offer some suggestions on how to prepare for a visit, as well as ideas to guide you during that time.

First, remember—intention is everything. If your intention is to rush in, make small talk and get out fast, it will show. If, however, your intention is to make the person feel encouraged, cared about, or put a smile on his or her face, the person will sense that too.

It is so important to make sure you are in a place of peace before the visit. If you don’t feel calm, peaceful and centered, take fifteen minutes to quiet yourself before entering the person’s home or room.

Once prepared, here are practical suggestions for a successful visit:

• Always approach the person slowly and quietly so as not to startle them.

• Introduce yourself with a quiet voice. “Hi, it’s your niece, Jane. I would like to sit with you for a while.”

• If you want, hold the person’s hand. Start by telling the person what you are doing. “Mary, I am going to hold your hand now.” Another option is to put the person’s hand on top of yours. That way if the person does not like touch, they can pull away.

• If the person has a book or newspaper by their bed, read it softly.

• If the person appears to be in and out of sleep, that is okay. They will know they are not alone.

Although it’s natural to be concerned about what you’re going to say, don’t worry so much about the words. The main thing is that your message comes from the heart. It’s also important to remember to stop talking at times and simply listen to the person. Here are a couple of tips to help you keep it real:

Do say – “It’s good to see you.” Let them know you have been thinking of them.

At a loss for words – It’s okay to say, “Mary, I don’t know what to say or do, but I am here and I care about you.”

Listen – If the person talks about being anxious, listen quietly. Don’t try to change the subject or silence the person. When he or she is finished sharing concerns, encourage him or her by asking, “What do you want to achieve now?” Then you can gently shift the focus of the discussion to that goal rather than the prognosis or condition. For instance, if a person says she wants to live to see her grandbaby born, ask her how they will celebrate when the baby arrives. Try to keep the conversation positive.

Chatter is overrated – Be present without saying a word. You do not have to fill every moment of your visit with conversation. Just make sure you are focused on the person and not thinking about your next appointment or task on the “to-do” list.

Being there, really being there, for someone yields life lessons you can’t get any other way.

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