July 19, 2014

Five Rules for Consoling the Dying

In First Things, Russell Saltzman offers his Five Rules for Consoling the Dying.

First, if you are approaching a bedside, try not to act like a novice Optimist Club member, all hale and hearty and booming of voice. I know you are trying to cheer people up, but that’s not the way to do it. Ginned up bon ami “let’s do lunch soon” camaraderie makes me wonder if you can see reality….

Second, don’t pester the dying with useless information. You are not there to make small talk. You are there to console. Don’t talk about getting the gutters cleaned or the driveway resealed, what you did on your last (or what you plan to do on your next) vacation, who you saw last week and how well they’re looking, or where you have to stop next after you leave……

Third, it does no good to raise your voice, as if the dying are now hearing impaired….it is condescending and likely unnecessary.

Fourth, don’t lie. “I’m never leaving this hospital, am I?”…..I have encountered only one doctor who ever directly told a patient her illness was unto death. But those dying know and they know a lie when they hear it……

Finally, all you caregivers, family and pros—stop talking about the patient. Instead, talk to the patient. It hardly matters if he or she can reply, because at this point it isn’t about the patient. It is about you and how important it is for you to remember there is a person before you….

If you want to be a consoling presence, show a little gravitas….If you must speak, remember, recall, and reminisce aloud with the patient, and say what they have meant to you and how deeply you love them. While saying this you must touch—hold a hand, caress a forehead, squeeze an arm.


Speak of memories, and touch like this:

She leans forward, his daughter, and she brushes her nose against his, moving side to side. “Remember the ‘Eskimo kisses’ you gave me?” He smiles, as his arm reaches up around her neck.
Posted by Jill Fallon at July 19, 2014 1:29 PM | Permalink