Facing death is never easy. Perhaps this is because, according to Genesis 2:15-17, God never meant for humanity to know death. Maybe this is why most of us are at a loss for words when trying to figure out what to say to someone who is dying.

Thankfully, there are people like Dr. Margaret Cottle. Cottle, a hospice and palliative care physician, says that the end of life can be an opportunity for believers to be “God with skin on” for those in need. 

1. Don’t be afraid

“Ninety per cent of caring is just showing up,” says Dr. Cottle, “and everybody can do that. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But when you look at the person’s face, and it doesn’t seem like things landed properly, say, ‘Oh, something I just said didn’t land right. What was it? help me understand what you’re feeling.’”

2. Ask questions

Dr. Cottle uses a specific form of care called Dignity Therapy. This form of therapy uses life-valuing questions and listening techniques to serve those facing death and the end of life. 

“I have what I call the magic question,” says Cottle. “I’ll ask people, ‘What’s the worst part of this for you?’ Don’t be afraid to ask that question.”

In Cottle’s practice, she’s witnessed how answering these questions can be therapeutic for those facing the end of life. When you’re unsure what to say to someone who is dying, consider asking the “magic question” or similar questions. Invite the person to reflect on their lives. Give the person a chance to define the legacy they’re leaving behind. These questions will often allow the person to process their circumstances in a dignifying way.

Other questions to ask:

  • When did you feel most alive?
  • Looking back, what were some of your favourite roles that you played in your life?
  • What are some things you want your family to know or remember about you?
  • Tell me, what are your wishes for your family or loved ones?

“When you talk to people about their life, you allow them not to be a naked patient in a gown, but a mother, business executive, or whatever their role is. This is much more satisfactory than if you are just treated like a number in a room.” – Gisele Wolf-Klein, MD

3. Still don’t know what to say? Listen and pray

“People don’t need your answers,” Dr. Cottle says. “They don’t need you quoting Romans 8 to them . . . Yes, that’s true. But they don’t need to hear that when they’re in a deep spot and when they’re hurting. What they need to hear is that you believe in the God who tells us that, ‘We have this hope as an anchor for our souls . . .’ They need you to be there with them, to accompany them. Just like Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. That’s the privilege we have in caring for one another.”

4. Let others care for you

Lastly, Dr. Cottle encourages those facing the end of life to allow others to care for them:

“You need to allow others to care for you. We have a duty as Christians to allow ourselves to be cared for as much as we do to care. So, I think the most important thing, if you’re facing a difficult situation . . . is paying attention, listening, showing up, being present, praying and showing grace to each other. That’s true gold.”

If you need to talk to someone, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.

Kirstie Piper is a Content Producer for Focus on the Family in the U.S.

© 2022 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

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