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Saying goodbye to a loved one on hospice

By Terre Mirsch

Throughout our lives we find ourselves saying goodbye under a variety of different circumstances. Euphemisms for these goodbyes—see ya’, ttyl (talk to you later), farewell, or until we meet again—often allow us to avoid the feelings associated with any sense of permanence to the experience.  Some of our goodbyes are fleeting passages communicated politely when we move from one place to another, signaling the end of one conversation as we quickly move into the next.  Some goodbyes occur when circumstances provide us opportunity or a new journey,  like a marriage or a work promotion that requires relocation.  Other times our goodbyes are a positive reflective of life’s natural transitions, as when a child leaves for college or moves away from home.

Goodbyes also occur during times of sadness or uncertainty, as in a marital separation or loss of a job.  Still, other times, we leave people or places without even knowing we are leaving them- until we look back and discover that we have yet to return, that we have yet to encounter that person or place again.  We feel a void that something was neglected- that words were left unsaid, or that hearts were left untouched.  And, sadly, there are other times when life’s challenges force us to permanently, and regrettably, say goodbye to those that brought meaning and joy to our lives.

Goodbyes are hard and these conversations do not come naturally for most of us.  But, in the face of life threatening illness, they can bring closure while creating the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings that, too often, go unsaid during the course of our daily lives.  Conscious good-byes allow us to deeply and fully express our love and feelings for one another.  They enable us to ‘make things right’ when relationships have drifted off course.  Ira Byock, M.D., in The Four Things that Matter Most: A Book about Living, described four phrases that can help us through the unpredictability of daily life: “Please forgive me”, “I forgive you”, “Thank you”, and “I love you”.

These phrases can be guideposts for our words when faced with saying good-bye to a dying loved one.  Consider the following when expressing your good-byes:

  • Offer and receive words of forgiveness.  Expressing one’s regrets while acknowledging others’ can be a powerful forum for healing.
  • Communicate how your loved one had a positive impact on your life- why you love them, how they helped you to be a better person, or what the relationship has meant to you.  Conveying words of appreciation for the difference they made in the lives of others defines one’s life purpose and legacy.
  • If you are having trouble coming up with the right words, it may be helpful to first write them down.  If you are unable to express your thoughts, remember that nonverbal language can often speak louder than words.
  • Be honest and sincere.  You don’t have to express feelings or emotions that don’t exist, or make the relationship more than it was.
  • If you are able, give your loved one permission to ‘let go’ or ‘rest’.  Provide reassurance that you will be okay or that they do not need to worry about you.  Giving permission while sharing that you will cherish wonderful memories can be a gift for the soon departed.

Shared words of appreciation, candor, and love bring meaning and value throughout our lives.  These words of gratitude can bring peace and dignity to one’s life story while also creating long lasting memories without regrets.

Share with us your experiences of saying good-bye.  What was helpful to you during that time?  What brought meaning and purpose to the experience for you or your loved one?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a marvelous article. I would encourage everyone to speak to their loved one – the dying person – even if you think the person cannot hear you. Who are we to say what they can and cannot hear or understand? You may not think that the dialogue is two-way, but if there’s even a chance that your loved one can formulate thoughts and responses that he alone can detect, what a gift you have given him. In my father’s last hours of unconsciousness before he died from Alzheimer’s complications, I sang to him, I told him what a terrific example he had been to me, and of course I told him how much I loved him. The song I sang was, “Aloha Oe” which is Good Bye in Hawaiian as we lived in Hawaii for 30+ years.

    October 1, 2012
    • Thank you, Irene, for your response and feedback. Yes, we should speak to our loved one even if they cannot respond back to us. It is believed that our ability to hear is maintained throughout the dying process and I have been witness to the calm and peace that the dying often experience once they hear their loved one’s voice or feel their touch. I have a wonderful vision of you singing at your father’s bedside during his last hours. What a wonderful gift you provided him and what wonderful memories you have for yourself. Thank you for sharing your story with us and thank you for following Caring with Confidence.

      October 1, 2012
  2. Abbygirl #

    My cousin thought I may have been loosing it when I would speak to my mother and recount what happened during the day. It gave me a sense of connection with her….as I could almost hear her responses to me. I did have to explain to my cousin about a person’s sense of hearing being the last to go.
    I was fortunate to have several family with me the night my mother passed. We did a lot of reminiscing, crying and laughing. When I said good bye to my mother that night, I did reassure her that we would be ok and that she could rest easy as she did a really good job with us. She passed peacefully not long after we left.

    October 1, 2012
    • That you for sharing your story about the time you spent with your mother during her last days. Sharing our daily events, even in the face of serious illness and death, does bring connection and a sense of normalcy to the experience. Taking the time to reminisce through laughter and through tears helps to create closure and also honors our loved one’s legacy. Giving her permission to rest and expressing appreciation for all she meant to you and your family was a wonderful gift that enabled her to pass with peace and dignity. Thank you again for sharing your experience- doing so brings comfort to others who have had similar experiences.

      October 1, 2012
  3. I never thought of it like this, but I was so glad to be able to have read this. It was so beautiful, thank you for sharing with me

    October 1, 2012
    • Terre Mirsch #

      You are very welcome, Terry. One important point that Dr. Byock made in his book was the importance of living by the principles of “The Four Things that Matter Most” in our everyday lives. We don’t need to wait until someone is approaching death to express forgiveness or to share with them our words of appreciation for all they have done or meant to us. Thank you again for your feedback and, as always, thank you for following Caring with Confidence.

      October 1, 2012
      • you are welcome, I love your blog, I learn a lot from it

        October 1, 2012
  4. Don Desonier #

    Thank you Terre for this wonderful article. My wife passed away this past July from early onset dementia. Over the nearly five years that elapsed from the time she was diagnosed to her death, I told her many times I loved her, and what a great mother, wife, and friend she was. In the early stages of her dementia, as she and I struggled to understand the ramifications of her illness, the last thing on my mind was to say “goodbye” in the way that we all hope we can when our loved one is dying, even though there was only one unrelenting and predicable outcome to her dementia. My role was to be her loving husband and caregiver as her cognitive awareness slowly declined, and to understand how to keep her as engaged and fulfilled as possible, in the moment to moment “presentness” of her life. On the day of her death, she was surrounded by her family. It’s hard to know what she was aware of or what she knew. All of us had a chance to say our goodbyes. I made a point that morning of continually telling her how much I loved her, what a wonderful wife, mother and friend she had been. Most importantly, I told her it was okay for her to now go.

    October 1, 2012
    • Terre Mirsch #

      You are welcome, Don, and thank you for sharing your story. It brought tears to my eyes. You provided a wonderful gift to your wife- one of unconditional love and acceptance. I am confident that she was aware of your presence and your love throughout her illness and during her last days of life. It is sometimes hard for the dying to ‘let go’- but giving permission and reassurance helps to make the transition easier. Thank you again for sharing your experience. Others who are just beginning this journey will benefit from learning that meaning and value is possible, even in the midst of sadness and loss.

      October 1, 2012

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