How to Effectively Communicate with a Dying Patient

There is no easy way to say goodbye to someone who is dying. Experiencing a sudden death of an immediate family member can be difficult to accept, as we have lost a special part of our life. What’s left is a montage of memories, and a collection of what ifs, could haves, and should haves.

When given an opportunity to spend time with a patient who is facing the final stage of life, take the time to openly discuss. For patients who are in altered consciousness, offer a comforting touch and still try to communicate because unconscious patients are still able to hear according to research. Provide a supportive and empathic mood as you exchange dialogues during his or her remaining hours.

On Death and Dying

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ book “On Death & Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families” discusses the “experience of dying” from different patients that were interviewed. They speak of what they wish they had done and how grieving has been a part of the experience but not the only stage they have been through. With this in mind, take time to respectfully listen without correcting, arguing, nor judging a patient. A great approach would be offering a more helpful response by saying “I’d like to hear more” or “please tell me how you feel about this…” the family can also be advised to emulate these therapeutic responses.

Nonverbal Cues

A simple touch, holding a hand, putting your hand on the shoulder, or offering your shoulder for a patient to lean on are effective non-verbal ways to comfort a grieving patient. Body language and touch are very important, so pay attention to signs of discomfort that you may unconsciously be displaying and try to focus on only the patient’s comfort.

Also, pay attention to the non-verbal cues and signals that the patient displays. To better understand the patient, below are forms nonverbal cues and how one can intervene to promote a supportive and relaxed ambiance.

  • Personal Space – A patient may want space and may seem uncomfortable with a simple “caress” so know when to offer a hug or skin-to-skin contact.
  • Eye Contact – If a patient seems to be staring from afar, allow him/her to gather thoughts. The situation may be weighing on the mind, so the patient may need time to process. He/she may be trying to recall an experience from the past. Your presence and active listening can be reassuring.
  • Tone of voice – Do not be shaken by a patient’s sarcasm. The concept of nearing death can be overwhelming. Maintain a mild temper and soft yet audible voice. Slurred speech may be a sign that the patient is finding it hard to open up fully, therefore, allowing him/her to breathe may calm him/her down.
  • Facial Expression – His/her facial expression should be in conjunction with his emotional state. If a patient states that he or she is “okay” but seems to be crying, then he or she is not. Body language and speech should match. Provide ways to calm him or her down and offer yourself by actively listening.

The more you become aware of a person’s gestures, the more effective you will be in addressing the concerns of the patient as you guide him or her through this final journey.