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 make a difference.

You may think: “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?”

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. Intention is everything. The person will sense your tone, pace of the visit and more. If your visit is intended to make the person feel encouraged, cared about, or put a smile on his or her face, the person will sense it.

Below are several helpful suggestions about how to prepare for a visit and ideas to guide you during the visit:

  • It’s 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 some time to quiet yourself before entering the person’s home or room.
  • 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 aloud.
  • 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 if he or she is able to communicate.

Here are a couple of tips to help you keep the visit authentic:

  • Do say – “It’s good to see you.” Let them know you have been thinking of them.
  • At a loss for words – It’s OK to say, “Mary, I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m 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 be 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 don’t 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.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or


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