When The Time Comes: Tips For How To Visit The Dying

By Rebecca Steinitz  April 29, 2016

As my father-in-law lay in his deathbed after a brief illness, people wanted to say goodbye. In those last days, we learned some valuable lessons.

Despite my awareness of deathbed confessions, deathbed conversions and deathbed visions, it never occurred to me that a deathbed was a real thing, the actual bed one dies in, until my father-in-law spent six days in his.

The deliverymen from the hospital supply company placed the rented hospital bed in his study next to a window lined with skinny pine trees. We made it up with tan sheets and a black and white mohair blanket under which he once took naps on the couch and now he would die. When we raised the head of the bed and propped him on his pillows, he faced a wall of the books he loved, the edges of the bookshelves lined with pill bottles and mouth swabs, medical gloves and syringes.

As my father-in-law lay in his deathbed, after an illness so brief his friends and colleagues were stunned to hear he had entered his last days, people wanted to say goodbye. So in those last days, we got a crash course on how to visit the dying.

I will love some of those visitors forever. Others I wouldn’t mind never seeing again.

Some visitors kissed him, told him they loved him, hugged us and respectfully took their leave. Others settled in, pulling up chairs to join our bedside vigil, sharing memories and news, laughing and crying with us, as he smiled if he was awake or drifted off to peaceful sleep as we talked on.

Then there were the ones who stood awkwardly by the bed, responding to our gentle conversational probes with monosyllables, seemingly unable to remember why they were there. And those who wept and clutched his hand, told us how terrible this was and how sad they were, then, when we finally got them out of the room, wept and talked some more, oblivious to anyone but themselves.

I will love some of those visitors forever. Others I wouldn’t mind never seeing again. But collectively they taught us some valuable lessons:

Be in touch, but don’t expect a response.
We appreciate your emails of love and concern, when we have time to check our email, but don’t ask questions we need to answer. Call if you’d like, but don’t expect us to answer the phone, and don’t leave voicemails (only my father-in-law knew the voicemail password; if you left us a message, we apologize). Quick “I’m thinking of you” texts are the best. They remind us that we have life and love outside the sickroom, and that we’ll still have life and love when this ends.

Say “We would love to visit,” or “Are you receiving visitors?” not “When can we visit?”
If we want you to visit, we will tell you. If we don’t respond, it could be that we have too many visitors already scheduled or are in the middle of a medical crisis, or he is too close to death or has already died. Of course it could also be about you, but you’ll never know, so you might as well assume it’s not.

Don’t try to fit us into your calendar.
“I can come anytime” is perfect. “How about Thursday?” is OK. But if you say “I’d like to come Thursday at noon,” you are imposing. Even if we say “That would be fine,” we may be quietly resenting both you and our own inability to say no. And if we say “That won’t work, but you can come at three,” take it or leave it, don’t push back.

Be ready for plans to change at any moment.
If you come to the door and we tell you to go away, blow us a kiss and go. Don’t make small talk or ask how he is. If it’s not a good time for you to come in, it’s not a good time for us to chat with you — unless we step out on the front porch to chat of our own volition. If we tell you to come at three, then call back and say one, then call again and say three, go with it. If our changing plans mean you can’t make it, accept that; clearly we have.

Bring treats.
The best are long-lasting treats that sit out so our guests can have a snack and we can grab a quick bite to keep ourselves from collapsing when we forget to eat meals. Boxes of candy exist for a reason. A nut tray from a local farm shop sustained us.

Don’t bring plants.
We have neither the time nor the energy to water them, and they will droop, then die, making us feel guilty, then reminding us of our sadness. Flowers are good. They are beautiful, and then they die because they are supposed to, and we throw them away without a care. As my father-in-law died, spring birthed itself early, and vases of daffodils brightened our days.
Have something to say.
You are here for a reason. It’s ok to say goodbye. It’s ok to say “I love you.” It’s ok to tell him how much he meant to you. It’s ok to share news or stories you think he’ll enjoy. In fact, all those things are lovely. But don’t expect him to make conversation, and please don’t place the conversational burden on us — we already have more burdens than we can manage.

Handle silence.
If there is an awkward silence, end it. Start a conversation or say your goodbyes. If there is a peaceful silence, be in it with us. Know the difference.

Don’t be needy.
We care about your feelings, but we can’t take care of you. Obey the Ring Theory: “Comfort IN, dump OUT.”

If you want to leave, leave. If you think it’s time to leave, leave. If we tell you to leave, most definitely leave. Don’t tell us one more story. Don’t ask if you can use the bathroom. Don’t linger in the doorway.  When it’s time to go, it’s time, for you, for us and for him.