Endpaper: Saying Goodbye Long Distance to Someone Who’s Dying

  • Endpaper

In the world before COVID 19, many of us envisioned or had the experience of saying goodbye in person to a dying loved. However, since the pandemic started, it’s more common than not for people to have to say their goodbyes to a quarantined, dying loved one via a phone call or a virtual encounter.

Under such restricted circumstances, is it possible to say our goodbyes in a way that’s supportive and not find ourselves paralyzed by the stress or anxiety of the moment?  Knowledge gathered by experts on end-of-life care offers us some guidance. 

Dr. Diane E. Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care in New York City, suggests five important themes to address with a dying person: 

  • Thank you. 
  • I forgive you. 
  • Please forgive me. 
  • I love you. 
  • Goodbye.  

Based on the relationship you have with the person who is dying, you may find that you feel the need to address only a couple of the themes.

Starting the actual conversation itself can also seem daunting. One way is to plan your approach to the conversation ahead of time, based on what you know about the person’s priorities and wishes.  

  • “I remember when we talked about dying, you said…”

and continue from there. If no such conversation has taken place, you can be honest about that.

  • “I know we never talked about things like death, and I’m hoping that’s not the case now, but I worry that time may be short and I want you to know…”

A few other starters are might include:

  • “I wish we weren’t in this situation, but I worry you could get sicker quickly, and I want to say…” or 
  • “It could be difficult to predict what might happen with your illness, so I want to tell you now…”

In his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Frank Ostaseski explains, “As people come closer to death, I have found only two questions matter to them. Am I loved? Did I love well?”

Simply by expressing your love and concern for the dying person, you will be offering the kind of support that matters most. Keeping that in mind, perhaps even in times of health, we might say goodbye to loved ones by including one of the points suggested earlier.

“Goodbye, I love you.”

Written by Carolyn Van Ness, a retired Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner with experience as a medical journalist and author. Currently her priority is end-of-life education through her efforts as a Death Doula, Death Cafe member, and Hospice volunteer.