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Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye to a loved one at the end of their life is not easy. Many people aren’t sure what to say and may not want to deal with the fact that their loved one is dying.

Knowing when to say goodbye

It can be hard to know when to say goodbye and it can depend on:

  • How long you have before the person’s death. This can vary from months to hours.
  • How aware the person is. Losing consciousness is part of dying for most people. When this will happen is hard to predict.
  • Where the person is. Many people would like to be at home as they near death, but this may not be possible if they are too ill, don’t have someone to care for them, or die quickly.

If able and if time allows, people often use this time to gather loved ones to say goodbye. But sometimes death happens quickly or a loved one is out of town or traveling. This can limit the time to say goodbye.

Being together at the end

If they can be together, family may take turns with the person who is dying, holding their hands, sharing good memories, or just sitting quietly. Some caregivers and family members may feel the need to stay busy by making meals or doing chores. This can also be a time for any religious or cultural rituals and other desired activities before death. It’s a chance for many families and friends to express their love and support for each other. The key is to be reassuring and honest, and to speak from the heart.

Here are some hints that may help you in this difficult time.

  • Try to plan ahead but know it’s not possible to predict when the last minutes or hours of life may be.
  • Understand that each person has their own needs and ways to express what they're feeling.
  • Be open about knowing the end of life is coming.
  • Try to avoid topics and memories that may cause hurt, stress, or pain.
  • You don't have to be formal with goodbyes when taking a break from being together. Hospice experts suggest just expressing your love for your loved one.
  • Think about using other types of communication for people who may be out of town or traveling, such as phone calls, video apps such as FaceTime or Skype, or other technology.
  • Know that many experts believe people who are not awake or responding may still be able to hear what you're saying and know you are there.
  • If you're having trouble dealing with your emotions, think about talking with your clergy or health care provider. They may be able to help or refer you to a counselor or mental health specialist.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Revised: December 19, 2023

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