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How to Be There for a Dying Friend

Dear Joseph,

How do you best help a friend that has only days to live? I assume being a good listener is important, but is there anything helpful that I should say?

Hoping to Help

Dear Hoping,

For purposes of my response, I’m going to assume this is a close friend not simply an acquaintance. If your relationship is weak, they may find stress rather than comfort in your presumption of intimacy. But if they feel safe with you, if you’ve earned their trust, you should assume nothing less than that. This is when true friends show up. Here are some thoughts about how to show up.

First, you ask: Can you say anything useful? I don’t know. But what I do know is that they probably want your companionship more than your advice. They are unlikely to want someone who attempts to beguile them from their obvious predicament with magical homilies. Don’t pressure yourself by assuming you need to fix something. What they will want most from you is for you to sit with them in their predicament. Experience it with them. Love them in it.

Second, my experience is that in situations like this, we fault more often on being too tentative than on being too intrusive. It is often the case that more intimate is more appropriate. We often act as though we believe not talking about the fire-breathing dragon in the room is safer/kinder/better than taking a person’s hand, sitting beside them, and staring at the dragon together.

Third, spend less time telling them how you feel about their impending death and more time asking them how they feel. Ask about their beliefs. Ask about fears. Ask about regrets. Ask about their legacy. Ask about their proudest life moments. These are perspective questions—ones that invite connection around larger issues of life. Beginnings and endings are moments of perspective. These are the kinds of thoughts that are naturally occurring to them anyway. So, go there with them. If they inquire, feel free to share your perspective on these questions, but don’t cross the line into coercion. Never take advantage of your psychological advantage of being the healthy one to impose your nostrums.

Finally, relieve their stress. My father taught me once that stress is like arithmetic. Everyone has a certain tolerance threshold. Mine might be 40. Yours might be 45. But we all have a number. The amount of stress we feel at any time is equal to the sum of all the stressors acting on us. Some might be 3s (I have a chip in my windshield that might spread). Some are 5s (my water heater is leaking now). And some are 10s (I’m dying). Thinking about stress this way helps point out two things:

1. Everyone has a tolerance limit. Everyone begins to crumble when the sum of all their current stressors exceeds their tolerance limit. Everyone. Even if your tolerance level is 327. If your stress sum is 600, you will break down.

2. You don’t have to remove the big stressors to help someone get below their limit. If your friend is dying, you can’t fix that. You can’t take away the 10. You may not even be able to do much with their 9s and 8s. But if you take away enough 2s, 3s and 4s, you might help them get back to manageability.

Once I learned this, it changed the way I talk with loved ones who are suffering. I no longer make vague offers like, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” This is a worthless offer. Basically, it says, “Here’s one more thing for you to think about—think about helping me feel helpful!”

Instead, I teach them about the arithmetic of stress, then I hand them a pen and paper, and I say, “Write down EVERYTHING that’s on your stress list right now.” I sit with them and encourage them to work all the way down to the nit-picky 1s and 2s. When the list seems complete, I go to work. I don’t ask for permission. I take charge of all the fixable things on the list.

I hope these ideas help. And I hope the sacred last moments you share with your friend are filled with the real intimacy.

With love,

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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11 thoughts on “How to Be There for a Dying Friend

  1. You should re-title this article to “How to Be There for a Friend in Distress”. This is applicable to anyone facing major issues (health crisis, divorce, death of spouse/parent), not just for someone facing death. Great article, and I love the Arithmetic of Stress :-)

  2. Thank you for the response on how to “be” with a dying friend or loved one. It is another great perspective that may make those final hours for you both more meaningful. I shall remember this.

  3. Hi Joseph – I’ve been reading your posts for quite some time and I’m a fan. Today’s blog was quite touching and practical. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  4. Perhaps this article reinforces making friends and keeping friends and family close; spend less time chasing entertainment.
    I am not sure exploring all these things is the best thing to do when death is around the corner. Pay your respects, decide to stay only a few minutes, knowing it can be tiring for this person and there may be more who want to visit in the coming days.
    In my experience as a healthcare professional, people try to make up for lost time when a beautiful, heartfelt and simple greeting is best.
    Share a smile, hold his/her hand and know it’s OK to be silent. Share a memory, let him/her know your prayers and good thoughts are there and respectfully leave.
    Offer to grocery shop for the family, pick up the dry cleaning or run the mail to the post office (something simple and useful). Those efforts will be appreciated.
    Lastly, it may not hurt to ask your friend if s/he communicated funeral arrangements; who the rabbi/priest/minister is to contact, from which synagogue/church to be buried, cemetery, etc. I have seen the children who live far away don’t know what to do next. Hopefully, your friend can write down or provide the details for them if those things have been pre-arranged.

  5. Mr. Grenny and anyone concerned,
    your suggestion to spend “more time asking them how they feel…about their beliefs… fears… regrets… legacy… proudest life moments” reminds me of that new yorker article “The 36 questions That Lead to Love”, which i’m not going to try linking here but is worth a quick search nonetheless; it was based on the idea that sustained mutually escalating self-disclosure would make people feel more intimate, closer, more connected, etc., in an attempt to get them to work more effectively together, and most of the questions are similar (this Aron/Bator/etc paper: The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: a Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings).

    thank you also for the stress arithmetic metaphor

  6. Greetings. Thanks for sharing this article. It is a very deep question. Having lost two loved ones recently, it is a tough situation to know exactly what to say. We definite need to “be there” for that person. As well, with my father in law, he asked me to take care of a few things for him once he was gone. I most certainly said I would and this brought some peace for him.
    Can I offer some more hope though? In my father in laws case, my wife asked if she could pray for him. He was not a man of faith, but said yes. He was open to his own daughter to share these last few days together praying for him.
    There is hope in Jesus. If you are curious, look at the Bible and read John 3:16. As a man of faith, I know that I am not perfect, but Jesus is. When we face this time, and we all will, we need to know what is next. There is hope in Jesus Name!

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