When a loved one dies or is dying, many people feel a strong need to say a final farewell.
If we are lucky, we will have a chance to say goodbye while the person is still alive. But in many cases, people miss that opportunity. For instance, the person may have died unexpectedly. Or if we know someone is dying, we may simply feel uncomfortable acknowledging the end is near.
People may feel guilty about not saying goodbye. In reality, though, not saying goodbye doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. In fact, people sometimes delay their own death until their loved ones are not present, to spare them further pain. The moment of death is usually unpredictable, even for people on hospice care.
However, you can still find ways to say goodbye to someone who has died.
When you express your farewell to someone who died, you will help yourself heal from the loss. If your loved one is still living, you can communicate your goodbye in ways that bring peace and comfort to you both.
How to say goodbye when the end is near
How you say goodbye to a loved one who is dying should be based on both of your needs. For example, you may need to feel heard and emotionally connected with each other. People who are dying may also feel negative emotions, such as fear, confusion, or anger over their situation. They may be in denial or hoping for a miracle cure.
Think about what you want to do or say ahead of time, and be flexible if your loved one’s response surprises you. They may be either more or less open to your goodbye than you expect. Remember your main goal is to deliver a final message of love to your relative or friend.
Here are some ideas to consider when saying goodbye to someone who is dying:
- Be there for your loved one as best you can. Sometimes just being with the person means the most, even if you don’t say anything. But make sure to take care of yourself, too. You may find it too upsetting to sit with the person who’s dying, or you may need someone to accompany you. It’s OK to feel this way and to do what feels right for you.
- Focus on key, loving messages. In the book “The Four Things that Matter Most,” author Ira Byock identifies these important messages to communicate with loved ones near the end of life: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.” Expressing these sentiments can help bring a sense of peace and completeness to both of you.
- Create a memory book. Make an album with photos and captions that celebrate your relationship. Share the book with your loved one to communicate your love and appreciation for them, and to connect as you view it together.
Get help from a hospice team. If your loved one becomes upset and you feel unable to handle the situation — and you are receiving hospice care — speak to one of the members of the hospice team. The social worker and spiritual support counselors can help focus on existential concerns, concrete concerns, helping with goodbyes to your dying loved one, and meaning making in the midst of grief and loss. Spiritual support counselors can help support religious considerations of preparation for death and saying good-bye.
Your loved one may be unable to explain or even understand their own behavior. However, they may be more communicative with a nurse or other team member.
How to say goodbye after someone has died
The pain you feel from your loved one’s death may be even greater if you did not get to say goodbye or be with them at the end. Here are some things you can do to help ease your grief and bring a sense of closure:
- Say goodbye. Go to a quiet spot, whether in your home or in a place that was special to the person. Bring a photo or other symbol of your loved one to look at. Say anything you need to say. For example, tell them why you were not there when they died, and why you are sorry. Say that you will always love them.
- Write a goodbye. Compose a letter, diary entry, poem, or other written message to your loved one. This can provide a strong release of your emotional and physical pain. Write as if you are speaking directly to the person. Tell them everything you would have liked to have said while they were alive. Be sure to include “I love you” and that you will never forget them. Later, when troubling thoughts arise about not having said goodbye, reread your work. You can also add to your writing when you do this. In addition, you can start a journal to record memories of your loved one as they come to you.
- Attend the funeral. This is another chance to say goodbye to someone who has died. If you are unable to attend the service or viewing, try to see your loved one’s body at another time. Bring a friend or relative for support. Seeing the person who died helps provide a sense of emotional closure.
- Communicate with others. Share memories with other friends and loved ones of the deceased. This can help you feel more connected to the person, and even fuel other ways to say goodbye.
Are you mourning a loss? Samaritan offers a wide range of grief support services
in Southern New Jersey. Visit Grief Support Resources to learn more.
- Create a ritual. For example, put a message to your loved one on or inside a helium balloon, then release it. (Use a biodegradable balloon so it doesn’t hurt wildlife and the environment.) Other rituals can include placing flowers or other tributes at the person’s grave, or scattering their ashes in a meaningful place. (Check local and state regulations before releasing ashes.) Whether you conduct the ritual alone or as a group, it will provide opportunities to remember your loved one.
- Make a vision board. Gather images from magazines or other sources that remind you of your loved one, and glue them to a poster board. This can help you retrieve happy memories of the person and feel more in-touch with them. You can also take a photo of your board and share it with other loved ones.
- Create a memorial. Start something meaningful in your loved one’s memory. For instance, raise money or volunteer for a charity that has a connection to your loved one. Or donate money to have your loved one’s name placed on a park bench or other memorial that supports a worthwhile cause.
- Call up happy memories. Remembering past times with your loved one can help you feel close and say goodbye. Certain activities can support this process, such as listening to special music or making a playlist, looking through old photos, watching a special movie or TV show, or reading a certain book. You could also go to a place that brings back positive memories of your loved one.
- Spend time in the garden. Whether working in the soil or simply admiring the view, gardens bring comfort and remind us we’re all part of the circle of life. You can also plant a tree or flowers in memory of your loved one. Certain plants also have symbolic meanings – such as rosemary for remembrance, and violets for devotion.
Coping with difficult feelings over not saying goodbye to someone who has died
If you continue to struggle with guilt or anxiety over not saying goodbye before your loved one’s death, these strategies can help:
- Consider your loved one’s perspective. Realize that your relative or friend would understand the situation and would not hold it against you.
- Refocus your thoughts. Think about a happy memory of your loved one or visualize them forgiving you. Shifting your attention from negative to positive thoughts takes practice, but it’s a powerful technique that can help you deal with many types of unwanted thinking.
- Get help. A grief support group or individual grief counseling may be helpful if you continue to struggle with feelings of guilt, anger, regret or resentment, or if you are having a difficult time dealing with the emotional, mental, physical or spiritual aspects of grief. If your loved one received hospice care, you are eligible for 13 months bereavement support after the loss of your loved one. Please ask your hospice team about this benefit.
To learn more about grief-support resources, support groups, or end-of-life care in Southern New Jersey, please call Samaritan at (800) 229-8183.