What to Say When Someone is Terminally Ill: Six Ideas

Jenna Davis
|6 min read

Financial Assistance

If a friend or loved one is terminally ill, it’s understandable that you may be at a loss for words. You might even be hesitant or anxious about talking with them or spending time together out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing during an already difficult time. Each person is unique and may respond differently to certain conversations, but we hope this guide offers a few helpful ideas about what to say when someone is terminally ill.

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What to say to someone who is terminally ill

There are no perfect words in times like these, but by being there for your friend or loved one and making an effort to talk with them, your good intentions will shine through. These six ideas can help you start a meaningful conversation.

1. “How are you feeling today?”

This simple question gives your friend or loved one the opportunity to share as much or as little about their terminal illness as they’d like. Ignoring their illness because you’re uncomfortable or worried about making them uncomfortable can actually invalidate their feelings and be hurtful.

Asking how they’re feeling acknowledges their illness while allowing them to lead the conversation about it. It’s a wonderful gateway question—meaning it can lead to many other conversations.

2. “Do you need anything?” 

This question highlights your desire to help and shows you care about their needs. Maybe they’re craving a good cup of coffee, a warm blanket, or a buddy to watch their favorite movie with. Or perhaps all they really want is a big hug or a shoulder to cry on. This open-ended query makes way for you to fulfill any number of important requests.

3. “I’m here for you.”

Offering your time and listening skills is sometimes all that’s needed to lift someone’s spirits. This phrase is a good option instead of offering platitudes like, “You’re going to get through this,” or “everything happens for a reason.” These phrases can invalidate their emotions and their struggle.

4. “You’ve been on my mind.”

Telling your friend or loved one that you’ve been thinking about them is a wonderful yet simple way to show you care. This phrase can also help you segway into sharing a favorite memory of this person.

If you reach out via text, email, or voicemail, it’s important to let them know that they don’t need to reply if they’re not up to it. Often, people who are facing a serious illness are bombarded with messages and calls from people who are thinking about them, and the obligation to reply to each and every person can be overwhelming or emotionally draining.

5. “I love you,” or “You mean so much to me.” 

When trying to figure out what to say to a terminally ill friend or loved one, it’s often most meaningful to simply express your feelings for them. In fact, in the book “The Four Things That Matter Most,” author and doctor Ira Byock found through extensive research that these four phrases carry enormous weight to terminally ill patients :

  • I love you
  • Thank you
  • I forgive you
  • Forgive me

When it’s unclear how much time they have left, it’s crucial to tell your loved one how you feel, and often.

6. “I’m not sure what to say.”

You won’t always know what to say to a terminally ill friend or loved one, and that’s okay. Telling them you’re at a loss for words offers a healthy dose of authenticity. This can also show that you might be struggling to navigate your own feelings of grief and pain—without going overboard and burdening them more.

When silence is preferred, you can communicate your feelings through physical touch, like placing your hand on theirs, giving a hug, or patting their shoulder. These small gestures are a powerful way to show you care.

Beyond words: how to help someone who is terminally ill 

Spending time together and showing your loved one you care through acts of service can sometimes be more important than the words you choose to say. If you need tips on how to help a sick friend or loved one, try lending a hand with one of the below four ideas.

1. Care for their children or pet 

Offering to babysit, pick up their kids from school, or take their dog for a walk is a favor that can mean a lot to someone who isn’t feeling their best—and doing one of these things isn’t a huge time commitment.

2. Drive them to a doctor’s appointment

For many, learning how to deal with a terminal illness means coming to terms with a new reality. Getting from point A to point B is one of many simple tasks that can become difficult when very ill. By offering to drive your friend or family member to their doctor’s appointment, you’re lifting a burden while providing emotional support through what may be a difficult visit.

3. Deliver a hot meal 

No one likes cooking when they’re not feeling well. Because nearly everyone appreciates food, dropping off a meal is something you can do even if your friend or loved one hasn’t requested it. If you’re not one to cook, try giving them a gift card to a restaurant, or organizing a rotating dinner schedule between friends.

4. Start an online fundraiser 

For millions of people, crowdfunding has become an important way to raise money during a challenging time. An online fundraiser provides a central place for friends and family to unite and offer financial and emotional support. Whether you’re looking for financial help for palliative care, expensive medical treatments, or medical bills, an online fundraiser can provide financial relief and allow your friend or family member to focus on what matters during this difficult time.

Reach out and make a difference today 

If you’d like to do more, you can make a real difference by lifting a financial burden from someone who is terminally ill. Through GoFundMe, you can start raising money within minutes of signing up, and our free fundraising platform means more of your donations will help the person who needs it most. Sign up today to begin making a difference.

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Jenna Davis

About Jenna Davis

I have a passion for storytelling and love creating a variety of content for a wide range of audiences. Once, I frolicked on the beach with about 30 miniature horses. I bring it up every chance I get.

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