The general feeling is that you don't know what to say. You're afraid to say the wrong thing. You don't know what to do to help, and it is a reminder of the one thing we will all face sooner or later.
Here are some insights from families of terminally ill patients and experts in the field:
Don't state the obvious
Telling the family, "Well, we're all going to die. None of us knows when. I could walk out and get hit by a bus," is not helpful knowledge. They are in the thick of the situation, and someone they love is dying sooner than later. There is no comfort in thinking about someone else getting hit by a bus.
Don't ask what you can do
Do it. Formulate a plan, run it by them and then put it into action. The last thing the family needs is to try to think of things you can do to help. They have other things on their mind. Rather than ask the open-ended question, make suggestions, "I would like to run by your house and water the plants," "I am going shopping. I would like to stock your cupboards, so you don't have to think about that," "I would like to pick up the kids for the weekend and have some fun with them," "We've made a bunch of casseroles for your freezer. May I stop by and put them away?" Think of little tasks that might be overlooked.
Don't be afraid to share a laugh
Be upbeat. It isn't a funeral, yet. Go in with a smile and share a joke or a funny story about a mutual friend. Gossip a little. Bringing light into a dark place is always a welcome respite.
Offer to sit with the patient while the immediate family goes home for a quick shower or nap. Assure them you will call immediately with any changes. However, if they are not comfortable, don't push the issue.
Start a card drive
Patients and families of patients generally feel quite isolated. News from the outside is a welcome break and gives them something to share with the patient. Encourage neighborhoods and church families to send cards with bits of upbeat news.
Bring a meal
A lot of times families are stuck eating from vending machines. Bring in a nice family meal, complete with card table, linens and centerpiece. Set it up in the family waiting room and sit with the patient while they enjoy a nice family meal.
Set a routine
In addition to little surprises, what the family misses most is routine. Their home. Their schedule. Any kind of control. Setting up a routine would give them a sense of that. Suggest some little thing you can do for them at a designated time, and make sure you can be consistent with it. For instance you may say, "I'm going to bring you homemade chicken soup and home-baked bread every Wednesday at 4 p.m. I will sit for an hour while you eat." Or, "I'm going to run by and water your plants every Monday, Thursday and Saturday. I'll bring you your mail every other day."
Just listen to the family and allow them to vent, scream, cry and process a "this just isn't fair" moment. Don't offer advice. Don't tell them you know how they feel. Just listen and offer shoulders, hugs and prayers.
Share news and laughs
The patients are surrounded by people already in mourning. Bring a little levity to them. Be chatty and share silly stories. Treat them as they are - still living. Bring balloons, cards and flowers.
Let them know you will be looking after their family. Take stewardship for them and follow through.
If they are able to speak, listen to anything they have to say. There are no rules or boundaries for the terminally ill. Don't belittle their experience by saying, "Now, now, let's not talk about when you're gone." Let them share their concerns about leaving. Listen and acknowledge what they are saying.
Sometimes all the dying want to know is that it's alright if they go. They hang on because they are worried about the ones they are leaving behind. Let them know that when they are ready, it's OK to go. This is only for very terminal patients. Even if they are comatose, whispering to them that it's OK is important.
Don't hold them back
This may sound weird, but it was taught in a medical massage therapy class for the terminally ill. Touch is extremely important to the dying. However, they are frail and extremely sensitive. Your touch should be no more than the weight of a nickel. Very gentle and no rubbing. Just touch. If they are very near death, slip your hand under theirs. By putting your hand on top of theirs, they will get the sense that you are actually holding them back. Touch hands. Touch feet. Touch face. Gentle, soft, light touch.
Death is inevitable. It is not tragic, though the suffering some have to go through to get there is difficult. Setting aside your own pain to comfort the dying and their families will be one of the greatest gifts you can share with them. Don't tread on eggshells or come in with a sad countenance. Bring love and gentleness and light.