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Deathbed Etiquette

What To Do, Bring Or Say

It can be hard to find the right words to express your grief over the death of a loved one. It’s even harder to find the right words to say to someone who is dying. In truth, there are no perfect words for saying goodbye. Death is a mystery to the living, and it is unfortunately a journey we must all face alone when our time comes.

However, there is comfort in knowing we have our loved ones by our side as we prepare for life’s final act. Preparing for the death of your loved one is not an easy thing to do. You may feel overwhelmed physically and even more so emotionally. However hard it may be for you, your dying loved one’s comfort should always come first. Their final days are numbered, and you want to be sure they have the best experience provided to them before they pass.

We’ve written a guide on deathbed etiquette to help you navigate through this difficult time. While no guide can fully prepare you for real life experience, we hope it will be helpful in providing you information on what to expect. We hope you can find comfort in knowing that there are others who are willing to help you through this sad time.

What Does It Mean To Sit Vigil With Someone That Is Dying?

The practice of sitting vigil at a deathbed for someone you love can be traced back centuries. Traditionally, friends, family, and clergymen would gather around the dying person’s deathbed to offer them comfort during their final hours. It was common to read scriptures or offer prayers for the dying person and their family.

Today, it is still common practice to attend an end-of-life vigil for someone you care for. The purpose of keeping a vigil is simply to offer your love and support for your loved one as they face the end of their life. Your presence by their side is a great comfort in reminding them that they are loved and not alone in their time of need.

Vigils offer friends and family of the dying person an opportunity to come together and comfort each other. It is hard to say goodbye to someone you love and even harder to do it alone.

Often times we regret not being able to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us before they’ve passed. Deathbed vigils allow us the chance to tell our dying loved ones how much they meant to us. 

Depending on their condition near their time of death, they may not be fully aware of their surroundings. Subconsciously however they will know you are with them. Sitting vigil with your loved one on their deathbed is one of the last acts of compassion you can show them.

What Are Some Things You Can Bring With You When Visiting A Dying Loved One?

When you visit someone who is dying, you are keeping them company just as you would if you were visiting a friend under normal circumstances. While death is sad, your loved one may not see it that way. Maybe they have come to accept their situation and would rather focus on brighter thoughts during their final days.

Although it may be emotional for you to see your loved one on their deathbed, be sure not to solely focus on the sadness of the situation. Try to lift their spirits up by talking about things that make them smile. You can also bring gifts with you that you think your loved one may enjoy. Read below for ideas on what you can bring to a dying loved one on their deathbed:

THEIR FAVORITE BOOK

Your loved one may enjoy having a story read to them from one of their favorite books. Depending on their situation, they may not have the energy or ability to read for themselves. They will like being read to; it will give them an excuse to think about something other than their current situation.

Stories let the mind wander, which will be helpful for brightening their mood if they are confined to a hospital bed. It will mean more to them to have you read them a story rather than listening to one on a recording.

But if they’re not into stories, they may enjoy being read to from the newspaper, different works of poetry, or from their preferred religious texts. In some cases, your loved one won’t be able to respond to you (if they are in a coma for example), but they will still enjoy hearing your voice while they lay there. Hearing your voice will let them know that you are there with them. 

GAMES

Being bedridden doesn’t give one much opportunity for entertainment. If your loved one is alert and able to engage in some activity, consider bringing their favorite board or card game along with you when you visit.

It will give them an opportunity to focus on something other than their predicament. They will likely welcome the chance to do something other than lie in bed all day. Playing a game together will be a fun way to spend time with them and keep their spirits up.

If they’re not able to physically participate in a game, crossword puzzles or ad-lib games could be another option. You can read out the clues to them and they can tell you the answers. In this way they are still participating without physically having to do anything. 

JOURNAL

Bring a journal with you when you visit your dying loved one in case they want to relay any information or stories to you. When we die, our thoughts and memories die with us.

Many times, we wait until the last minute to say what we want to say, or don’t get a chance to say it at all. If your loved one has anything they’d like to get off their chest before they die, offer to write it down for them.

Maybe they have stories or memories they’d like to share with their friends and family. Maybe they have regrets or apologies they wish they had made sooner. Letting them get out whatever they need to say will help put their minds at ease. 

MUSIC

Your loved one may enjoy listening to their favorite music one last time before they pass. Music has a healing energy that can calm and soothe. Playing familiar tunes will bring back happy memories of the first time they heard their favorite songs.

It’s likely thought that hearing is one of the last senses to go while we are dying. Even if your loved one is in an unresponsive state, they may still be able to hear and enjoy music. Play music from your phone or portable speaker at a reasonable volume.

Keep in mind they may be more sensitive to loud noises, so don’t put the speaker too close to their ears. Gentle melodies or instrumental music will be best for keeping them in a relaxed state.

FOOD

Most of us love nothing more than relaxing while eating our favorite meal. Your loved one will likely welcome a warm, home cooked meal or their favorite take-out brought to them. You two can enjoy a meal together while you talk about some of their other favorite recipes.

Food is a central part of life and our favorite meals can bring back many fond memories. Nothing is more satisfying than a belly full of yummy food. 

TOILETRIES/SELF-CARE ITEMS

As we age or become sick, our general self-upkeep becomes harder for us to manage. It is not uncommon to let ourselves go when we have other health concerns to focus on. Your loved one may enjoy being treated to a nice manicure, pedicure, hair brushing, or even a massage.

Simple things like making sure their fingernails and toenails look nice or styling their hair will give them a sense of dignity. It will remind them of who they once were before they fell ill.

The little things, like being able to bathe oneself, that we as healthy individuals take for granted become the hardest tasks for elderly or sick individuals to do on their own. Doing those tasks for them and making them feel comfortable will mean so much to them.

Consider bringing nail polish, dry shampoo, lotion, mouth wash, or even perfume with you when you visit your loved one. Anything you can do to make them feel more normal will be helpful in their situation. 

FLOWERS OR PLANTS

Flowers or plants are always a nice gesture when visiting someone, male or female. Bringing the gift of flowers or plants shows that you were thinking of them. Plus, they are pretty to look at and smell wonderful.

Flowers and plants can brighten up even the dreariest of rooms and bring some color into view. Your loved one will surely love something beautiful to look at while they are bedridden. 

What Do You Say At Someone's Deathbed?

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is dying. You may be emotional or worried that you will say the wrong thing and upset them. The best way to navigate this situation is to think about what your dying loved one wants to hear. They know they are dying and likely have come to terms with it.

It’s okay to ask them how they feel about it. Are they scared? Do they feel like they have had enough time here on earth? If they are scared or nervous about dying, talking about it may help them feel less alone. Lending your ear to their worries will be helpful, even if you are unsure how to respond. Your job is simply to listen and reassure them that they will be remembered when they pass.  

ASK HOW THEY ARE FEELING

One of the most important things you can do for your dying loved one is to ensure their comfort. They may not have the energy to remind you or may not want to bother you with their demands. Ask them often if they are in any pain or if there is anything you can do to make them more comfortable.

Reassure them that whatever they need is no trouble at all for you. Whether they need more pain medication, comfier pillows, softer blankets, or even a beer, let them know you will make it happen. Their last days on earth should be as painless as possible. Anything you can do to help them will make their passing easier. 

ASK IF THEY NEED HELP GETTING THEIR AFFAIRS IN ORDER

If your loved one has been sick or bedridden for some time, they may not have had the energy to sort out their affairs. You should ask them if they need any help doing so and offer to do it for them.

This might mean bringing them documents they need or getting in touch with their friends or family. Helping them with these tasks will be a huge help, especially if they don’t have the energy to do it themselves. 

TALK TO THEM NORMALLY

Although there may be some important matters to discuss before death, they probably want to talk about happier things at least part of the time. Talk to them about subjects that you normally would like to tell them what is happening in your life. Tell them funny stories or comment on current events.

They’ll like feeling like they are still involved in the outside world, even if they can’t physically be there. Talking with them about normal everyday things will help them forget their own troubles for a time.

SING OR PRAY FOR THEM

Sometimes conversations don’t need to be had to show your support for someone. Your dying loved one may not be able to communicate with you verbally if they are really ill. You should still talk to them or, if you prefer, sing a song, or say a prayer for them.

Although they won't be able to respond, they will enjoy listening to your voice. Come prepared with songs you can sing or prayers you can read for them. 

HOLD THEIR HAND

If words fail, touch is one of the most intimate ways you can connect with your loved one. Being close to them, holding their hand, and giving them plenty of hugs are nonverbal ways to show you care for them.

Every human being likes to be touched, especially from someone that cares for them. If they cannot talk to you or hear you, they will still be able to feel your touch. 

How Do You Prepare Yourself, Another Family Member Or A Child For A Deathbed Visit?

Everyone handles death and grieving differently. Visiting a dying loved one on their deathbed might be scary or traumatic for some people, especially children. If you, a family member, or your child are feeling nervous about keeping vigil with your loved one, take steps to prepare beforehand to make the visit more bearable.

CALL AHEAD OF TIME

If you are not the primary caregiver to your dying loved one, be sure to check in with their caregiver or nurse ahead of time before visiting. There may be certain times of the day that your loved one is feeling more apt to receive visitors.

Remember that even though they are bedridden, they may easily tire from social engagements. You may not be the only visiting family member or friend that’s come to visit them. They will need a break every once in a while, and showing up unexpectedly could be tiresome or even irritating.  

Visiting them when they are not expecting you could be an uncomfortable experience for you and them. Checking with them or their caregivers beforehand will ensure you don’t show up at a bad time.


EXPLAIN DEATH TO CHILDREN

Helping children understand death is important to consider before you take them to visit someone who is dying. Explain to your child as best you can what death is in a way that they can understand.

Be honest with them without scaring them and answer any questions they may have. Explain that death is a natural part of life and although it is sad, death also means the end of suffering. There are plenty of resources available online and on this site that will help you talk to your child about death.

Also keep in mind that your dying loved one will not look like their usual self when they're near the end of their life. They may be more frail or gaunt and if they are in a hospital, they may be hooked up to medical machines that could be frightening for your child to see. Explain to your child beforehand what to expect so that they are not shocked or scared by your dying loved one’s appearance. 


PLAN WHAT YOU WILL DO OR SAY WHEN YOU GET THERE

Speak with your child or family member about what you will say to your dying loved one when you visit them. There might be some subjects you might want to avoid if they make your child or family member particularly emotional.

Also explain what subjects to discuss or language used is inappropriate while standing vigil at your loved one’s bedside. Loud voices, cursing, or a child throwing a tantrum could be upsetting to your dying loved one.

Now is not the time to bring up past arguments or gripe about your own problems. Their final days on earth should be peaceful and relaxing. Family members should respect this. 


BE PREPARED FOR EMOTIONAL RESPONSES

No one can be certain how they will react when they are faced with the reality of their loved one’s death before them. It will be difficult for you, your children, or other family members to see your loved one hanging by the final threads of life.

As much as you think you can remain strong, be prepared in the event that you or someone else becomes over emotional. It is natural, even healthy, to express your emotions. There will of course be tears shed and many emotions felt in the presence of your dying loved one.

But if yours or someone else’s emotional outburst becomes too much to handle, have a Plan B ready. This may mean that you need to leave the room or take breaks during your visit to gather yourself. Likewise, you can escort your child or grieving family member to another room to comfort them. If emotions are too heavy at the moment, consider planning a different time to visit your dying loved one. 


REFRAIN FROM ANGER

Emotional outbursts can come in the form of anger as well as sadness. Unfortunately, not every family has healthy relationships with one another. Sometimes we do or say things to hurt one another, and the pain can last for years.

If there is any anger or past resentment felt between you or someone else and your dying loved one, it may still be present even at their time of death. While their mistakes don’t need to be forgiven, anger has no place near someone’s deathbed.

If you or another family member thinks they might have a hard time keeping their cool, consider getting counseling. Work out your anger issues before visiting your dying loved one.

If you don’t think that’s possible, it might be best not to visit at all. It would be better to let them go in peace rather than saying something you might regret later. You can always say your goodbyes to them in a way that doesn’t involve you physically being there. 

What Can You Do If You Can't Physically Visit Them When They Are Dying?

There are many life circumstances that could prevent you from being able to see your loved one in person before they die. Thanks to technology, there are ways we can still see or hear our loved ones without us physically having to be there.

Ask a family member or friend to Facetime or Skype with you while they are visiting your loved one on their deathbed. If Facetime or Skype is not an option, ask someone to hold a phone to your loved one’s ear so you can talk to them and say your goodbyes. If they can speak, you will at least get to hear their voice one last time before they pass. 

DEATH VIGIL VOLUNTEERS

In the event that your loved one does not have any family or friends around to be with them when they die, you could consider hiring a death doula, or death vigil volunteer. These services will provide someone to comfort and be company for your dying loved one as they lie on their deathbed.

Death vigil volunteers and death doulas are not caretakers or medical professionals. Their job is simply to provide a warm and comforting presence for the dying person. They can provide company as well as a human touch to your dying loved one in place of you or another family member.

Your loved one will appreciate having someone by their side while they make the journey to the next life. 

PERSONAL KEEPSAKES TO FEEL CLOSER TO THEM

When you can’t be near your loved one in person you may like the comfort of having a personalized keepsake to remember them by. Keepsake jewelry, such as a thumbprint necklace or even a thumbprint keychain will allow you to have something of your loved one on you at all times.

You can ask someone close to your loved one to make an imprint of their thumbprint so that you can use it for your thumbprint jewellry keepsake. It will be a way to keep a part of them with you forever.

You may also want to consider cremation jewelry that holds ashes, especially if you are not able to attend the funeral as well. You can have your loved ones ashes made into a jewelry keepsake for you to hold onto. Cremation jewellry that holds ashes allows you to have a part of them to say your goodbyes to. 

SEND THEM A HANDWRITTEN LETTER OR CARD

Express your feelings for your loved one in a beautiful handwritten letter or card. Some of us are better able to express our emotions on paper and a letter might be more meaningful than even a phone call.

Make sure there is someone close to your dying loved one who will be able to read them your letter or card if they cannot read for themselves.

You can send pictures of yourself or family along with it so that your loved one will have something to look at. They can keep your letter or card close by and find comfort in knowing they can re-read it as many times as they want. 

Resources For Visiting Someone On Their Deathbed

For additional help and deathbed advice, refer to some of the following resources:

  • Books on death and how to handle the loss of a loved one may be helpful in guiding you through this difficult time.  Check out your local library, bookstore, or look online for books and publications written to help those who are grieving.
  • Talking with your pastor or priest before you visit your loved one on their deathbed may help to ease any anxiety or fear you may be feeling. Your pastor or priest will have helped many grieving families before through their own loss. They can give you advice or words of wisdom for getting through this tough time. 
  • Connect with other people who are going through what you are experiencing by joining a support group. Check with your local church, community center, library, or do a quick Google search to find a support group near you. There may also be online support groups you can join if you are not able to attend one in person. Talking with other people who have gone through what you are experiencing now will be of great help. They can offer advice on what to expect and how to get through it. 
  • Speak to a therapist if you think you need professional help for managing your grief or fear of seeing your loved one on their deathbed. A licensed professional will have advice and resources for you to deal with emotions over the situation. It will be useful having someone to talk to who can offer their professional opinion. 
  • Death vigil volunteers may be a good option in cases where you and other family members are not able to be by your loved ones' side during their final days. Death vigil volunteers will provide comfort and company for your loved one so that they do not experience dying all alone. 
  • Refer to various articles and literature online for more information on how to say goodbye to a dying loved one.

Deathbed Frequently Asked Questions

What does sitting vigil mean?

Sitting vigil means to sit quietly in a place for a period. In terms of sitting vigil at someone’s deathbed, it means to remain by their side until they pass on. An end-of-life vigil is common practice around the world. No one wants to die alone; we would all prefer to have our loved ones surrounding us when we take our final breath. Sitting vigil at a deathbed provides comfort for the dying person. 

What do you do or say at the bedside of a dying loved one?

The most important thing you can do for a dying loved one is to ensure their comfort. Ask if they are in any pain or discomfort and if so, provide the means to fix it. This may mean more pain medication, comfier pillows, etc. Then remain by their side and provide emotional support.

Tell them how much you love them and will miss them. Talk about fond memories or funny stories from their past. Let them open up to you about their fears or worries. Provide a listening ear and a source of comfort for them whether or not they can communicate with you near the end. They will still enjoy your presence by their side as they pass on to the next life. 

Should I take my child to visit a dying relative?

Children have a right to say goodbye to their loved one if they would like to. While death and dying are difficult subjects to talk about, they are realities of life that all of us must face at some point. Do your best to explain death to your child in a way that they can understand.

Before you visit your loved one on their deathbed, inform your child about what to expect. The sight of your dying loved one might be shocking. Do your best to prepare your child for the changes they will see in their loved one’s appearance.

Visiting a loved one on their deathbed can be an emotional experience. Let them know that others or you yourself will be expressing their grief. Let your child know that this is normal and that they may feel emotional as well. 

How do I talk to someone who is dying?

Talking to someone on their deathbed should be a calming and loving interaction. While death is sad, your dying loved one may not want to focus on the sadness in the last days of their life. Talk to them about fond memories and the highlights of their life. Talk to them about your life and their friends and family.

Assure them that everyone will be okay when they pass, and they needn’t worry about leaving anyone behind. Deathbed conversations should not be about subjects that anger or upset your dying loved one. Speak positively yet let them know how much you love and will miss them.

Let them guide the conversation if they can, answer any questions they may have, and provide a listening ear for any of their concerns. These are their final moments, and they should feel comfortable saying what they want. 

What if I can’t accept that my loved one is dying?

It is difficult saying goodbye to a loved one. There is no one right way to grieve or deal with your sadness. If you can’t accept that your loved one is dying, consider doing some inner work on your emotions. You must come to terms with the fact that death comes for us all at some point. It is a natural part of life that we cannot escape.

Death is sad, but death can also mean the end of suffering and making way for new life to be born. Consider delving into spirituality or religious texts to learn more about the experience of dying. Talk to friends, family, or even a professional about handling your grief. Acceptance may be a process, but eventually all wounds will heal. You are going through a sad moment in time, but you will not be sad forever. 

What if I don’t have the mental strength to visit someone who is dying?

If you do not have the mental strength to visit someone who is dying, try your best to work through it. You may regret not saying your last goodbyes and showing your support at their deathbed. Speak to someone about the reservations or emotions you have about visiting your loved one’s deathbed.

Remember that it is okay to be emotional. No one expects you to remain stoic, even at their bedside. But if you absolutely cannot bring yourself to visit your loved one on their deathbed, consider saying your goodbyes in other ways. 

A handwritten letter or card will be meaningful and offer a way for you to express your feelings clearly to your loved one. You can ask another person to read it to your loved one if they cannot read it for themselves.

Send flowers along with your handwritten letter or card so that they will think of you when they look at them. Explain to them that you did your best to be there, but ultimately felt this was a better way for you to cope with their death. Pray for them and tell them you will be there in spirit as they live out their final days. 

How long should I visit with someone who is dying?

It may be hard to leave a loved one’s side on their deathbed in fear that you will miss their final breath. You will likely want to spend as much time with them as possible.

While they are appreciative of your company, keep in mind that they are in a vulnerable position and need a lot of rest. Long visits will be physically draining for your loved one. Keep your visits short or give them breaks in intervals so that they can sleep. They will appreciate that you came to see them, yet still need time for themselves. 

How do I say goodbye to someone on their deathbed?

Saying goodbye when someone is dying is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do. It will be emotional and difficult for everyone in the room to witness. The best thing you can do for your dying loved one is to let them know that you are with them.

Hold their hand and tell them how much you love them. Let them know they will be missed and that you will always hold a special place for them in your heart. 

A Final Good-bye

No one can ever be fully prepared to experience the loss of a loved one. There will be many emotions ranging from sadness, regret, anger, and even relief. Grief is a normal reaction to death and there is no one right way to grieve.

How you say goodbye to your loved one on their deathbed will depend on what is right for both of you. Saying goodbye is hard to do, but one day we will all be reunited with our loved ones in a better place.

December 30, 2021 by Jeri K. Augustus