Thursday, January 30, 2014

Avoiding the Uncomfortable Encounter

Serious illness, death and dying are still taboo subjects, and it is common to feel uncomfortable interacting with someone who is ill or nearing the end of life. You may be afraid of saying the wrong thing, and you do not want to be the person who offended - despite your best intentions.

While each person may interpret your words and actions differently, Arbor Hospice offers the following advice for interacting with loved ones facing a serious illness:
  • Avoid the words "you look great." When you have a serious illness, you often look ill and are very well aware of it. You do not want to remind someone that they are not looking their best.
  • Be specific in your offers to help. Friends and family may be quick to ask what they can do to help you but those requests are often unfulfilled. Your ill loved one may not ask for help because he or she does not want to be a burden or feel vulnerable. Instead, say "let me get that for you," and go get it. Or, instead of asking if the person wants you to shovel their snow, just go do it.
  • Be honest and simple. Do not worry about saying the right or wrong thing. It is okay to acknowledge an illness and tell your loved one you are thinking about them. Say "I love you. I'm sorry you're going through this."
  • Do not drop in for an unexpected visit. Phone ahead to see if it is okay to stop by, and understand that it might not be okay. Give your loved one a chance to tidy up or dress appropriately. It is also possible that your loved one is not up to visitors. Respect his or her wishes.
  • Do not visit too long. It is common for someone with a serious illness to tire easily. He or she may be uncomfortable asking you to leave or leaving early. Plan to stay for only 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Do not be afraid of silence. Sometimes your presence is all that is needed and means more than any words. By merely sitting with someone and holding their hand you are making an impact.
  • It is okay to say "I don't know." Your loved one may voice frustration over their illness or inability to do what they used to. You do not have to fix it. Instead of saying, "I know how you feel," say "I don't have any idea what you are going through, but I am here if you want to talk."
  • Listen. Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen. Listen to your loved one complain, ask questions, reminisce or tell stories.
Keep in mind that each person has their own preferences, and may or may not want to discuss his or her illness. Ask your loved one what he or she is comfortable with and honor those wishes. More often than not, you will find that your loved one does not want you to be uncomfortable and understands your fears of getting it wrong. If you can get past those fears, you may be able to interact with your loved one and make memories that will last for years to come.

This blog post was written by Gloria D. Brooks, Arbor Hospice President & CEO. You may contact Gloria by commenting below or emailing her at

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