Critter Corner: End-of-Life Doula Shares Advice on Talking About Death and Dying

Dear Magic,

I just found out that a close friend of mine’s mother has terminal cancer. My friend often wants to talk about it, and I try to be a listening ear. Sometimes she asks me for advice, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to say to her. Do you have any suggestions for communicating with someone in her situation with compassion?
Thanks for your help!

Donna Whatasaye

Dear Donna,

It’s often difficult to figure out what to say to someone who has a loved one who is dying. To assist you in answering your questions, I did some research and learned from an end-of-life doula, Nathalie Bonafé, advice she has gleaned from on the job experience. Hopefully this will help!

Advice on What to Say to Your Friend

End-of-life doulas such as Nathalie Bonafé have experience with family members who are dealing with terminally ill loved ones. Here, Bonafé shares advice on what helps, and what doesn’t:

  • Don’t say, “It’s going to be OK”: It’s an automatic and well-intended response, but don’t try to reassure a friend or loved one that everything will end up just fine. If you’re struggling for a way to say something meaningful, you can say: “I wish this wasn’t happening to you,” or “This must be hard news for you to share,” or “I’m here for you.”

But do say something. Even the nicest, kindest, most loving people in the world sometimes ignore or don’t know how to face the elephant in the room. A simple “I love you” or “I’m thinking of you” if you’re not sure what else to say, is probably just the right touch.

  • Make clear that you’ll be there for them: So many “friends” disappear when one has a loved one with a terminal illness, because they don’t know what to do or say. A funny card or email, a meal, picking up meds, or coming over one day to wash clothes, clean the kitchen or bathroom; these small gestures can mean the world to a friend.

Chances are your friend won’t ask for help, not wanting to be a burden. Help her without waiting to be asked. Believe me, it will be appreciated, both for the help and for the fact of not being forgotten.

  • Do try to create a semblance of normalcy: Your friend likely doesn’t want to just talk about her mom and her illness. Take her to lunch, go shopping, or perhaps go to a movie, and talk about other things to make her forget about stressful things for a while.
  • Ask how they’re holding up: This allows them to share as much or little about themselves as they like. If they sound less than stellar, follow up with that invitation to help, whether it’s offering to drop a meal later in the week, to offer companionship, or to drive them to see their loved one.
  • Do be a good listener: Ask how they are doing, and then really listen to them without pulling away, either physically or emotionally. You should also resist the urge to begin talking if there’s a moment or more of silence. Remember, in some situations, silence is golden. Your friend or loved one may feel comfort just being in the same room with you, knowing you are there for them.
  • Don’t get squirmy at the end: If someone you’re close to wants to talk about logistical end-of-life matters — funeral arrangements, etc. — let them, and offer to help if you can. If death is imminent for their loved one, it can really take weight off of that person’s shoulders. These may be things that they’re afraid to discuss with their spouse or their children because they’re worried it’s too hard for them. But knowing they can communicate easily with a good friend may provide them some relief.

Nathalie Bonafé is an “end-of-life doula.” Her job involves helping individuals face impending death, while spending a lot of time facilitating the practical duties that surround the event. End-of-life doulas approach death with compassion.

In addition to their primary responsibilities, they also conduct workshops, seminars and discussions known as “Death Cafes” to get people talking about death more often, making it a less taboo topic. A death café might be a good place for your friend to talk to others in similar situations and to gain some solace and understanding. You can even attend with her if she doesn’t want to go alone. Click here to find local death cafes in the DC area.

Hope this helps you and your friend in her situation!


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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.