How to write to someone who is dying

death,dying,terminal,terminal illness,writingThe other day I was asked by one of my subscribers – a very good friend, as are so many of my subscribers now – what advice I could give her about sending greetings to a terminal cancer patient. It was this patient’s birthday and my friend/subscriber wanted to mark the occasion.

But as the recipient had only a few predicted weeks to live, my friend was at
a loss to know what to say.

For a list of all 12 articles in this series on how to write well to people dealing with death, bereavement and other life sadness, click here. 

It’s alarming, yet understandable, that the most-read article here on HowToWriteBetter is the one I did some time ago called “What to write when someone has died.” Words of condolence and sympathy are very hard to put together in a way that is meaningful and appropriate; bereaved people vary so much in the ways in which they handle their grief.

And it’s very hard to home in on that when writing a card, letter, email or other communication no matter how much you want to show them how you share their pain, and want to comfort them.

When someone is dying, but still with us

This is so, so much harder. To begin with, you’re addressing the person who has a life-limiting condition, not his or her relative who is faced with the blunt, but one-step removed reality. Then, you need to understand how this person is dealing with his or her terminal illness; and that isn’t always in the way you might assume.

Of course, there are no definitive answers. The best I can do – and that’s not just as a writer but also as someone who has faced cancer twice in person, and been full time carer to a close relative who was terminal and died after just under a year from diagnosis – is to make some suggestions. Here they are. It’s quite a long post, but then it’s a very, very, long topic.

Get a grip on how the person is viewing his/her circumstances

You might well be very surprised at how someone who is dying  – assuming there is little or no mental deterioration – deals with their prognosis.

Some people become philosophical and want, simply and understandably, to make the best of the time they have left and enjoy every minute of it. They don’t want to know about long-faced sympathy; they want to get down and boogie for as long as they are physically capable and Heaven help anyone who writes them mournful messages and forlorn goodbyes.

In fact there are some terminal patients – usually and predictably young ones – who actively go out of their way to party, get drunk, get laid and generally behave outrageously while they still can. And in their shoes, wouldn’t you? I would.

Other terminal patients throw all caution to the wind and marry (or enter into a civil partnership with) their partner, even though prior to their diagnosis they may have dithered and procrastinated about such commitment.

You may also find this article helpful:
Cancer: what to write when someone has it

Then there are those in denial. My late mother was one of those. She chose to keep her dignity and serenity for as long as she could, refusing to allow even one of her best friends to come and stay with her for a while because she didn’t want that friend to witness her decline.

Next there are those who accept their tragic fate and work hard to plan and orchestrate their heirs’ future, relaxing only when all has been screwed down and sorted out. These people, I suspect, hide behind a screen of stark practicality and realism … but do they really want to be so harsh on themselves? And on their loved ones?

So what do you write?

The need to write to someone who is dying comes to a head at any time if you’re close, but such occasions are more likely these days to be correspondence via email. With this being more spontaneous, it’s a far more fluid and therefore less fraught way to share day-to-day dialogue.

Where the crunch comes is on occasions when you want to send someone like this a greeting for a birthday or anniversary, say – expressing your feelings without treading on the painful corns of their terminal status.

death,dying,terminal,terminal illness,writingDon’t assume – ask, or find out

If you know some of the person’s relatives and friends and they know the person better than you do, ask them how the person is viewing his or her state. That is likely to give you a reasonable indication of how you should approach writing a note, but be careful; close family members, especially, are likely to have a particular opinion on how the person is viewing his/her state which may only be based on their own perspective.

If you can, ask other people – preferably not family members, but friends and other people close to the person concerned – how that person is approaching their terminal status. Be guided not by the views of one or two individuals, but by those of as many appropriate people as possible.

Happy? Or not?

Unless they’re keen to celebrate to the end, avoid using the word “Happy.” That may seem obvious now but the majority of greeting cards obtainable in shops use “Happy” for birthday, anniversary and other cards. Usually there are other cards on sale which talk about birthdays and anniversaries without using the word “Happy,” so go for those – or go for a card with no printed words and write your own.

Instead, use words like “have a great day” … “thinking of you on this special day” … “so glad to share this special day with you” … “you’re a star – thinking of you today” … etc.

Use the present tense

Another friend of mine who asked me my views on this sensitive issue said she wanted to thank the dying person for being such a good friend and an inspiration.

This of course was very understandable from my (surviving) friend’s point of view. However I advised her to word her message to her dying friend not in terms of how this inspiration had been absorbed and acted upon – in the past tense – but in terms of how inspiring she (the dying friend) is … and much as that may seem somewhat temporary, it’s arguable that this person’s inspiration will go on beyond her passing, still in the present tense.

7 further points

1.If there’s someone you can ask about how the terminal person feels, and you can believe them, then do it – and be guided by what they advise you should write.

2.Don’t assume that what you think someone who is dying might want to hear, is what they really want to see. Be guided by the advice of others closer to them, by all means, but don’t forget to use your common sense, too.

3.If the person wants to avoid reality-based sympathy, respect that – don’t pat their hand indulgently or smile patronizingly at them either actually or metaphorically, no matter how much you feel they’re kidding themselves.

4.If the person is in fully-fledged denial about his or her terminal condition, write whatever messages you may have for them along those lines. Much as we may feel that for someone to deny that they’re dying is inappropriate, it’s not our shout. Respect how they want to handle it, even if it means discussing events in the future that you know they won’t be around for.

5.Be very wary of writing sentimental stuff to them, even if they are posting sentimental pieces online. Many terminal patients find it comforting to put out sentimental messages, but find incoming sentimental messages hard to deal with.

6.Respect the people closest to the patient and avoid writing anything unkind about them, no matter what your private feelings may be. This is not the time to raise doubts about them, or settle old scores.

7.If he or she enjoys a laugh, then make them laugh. For nearly everyone, humor is a great tonic. Choose your humor carefully, but let it flow; laughter is a therapeutic way to connect anyone to the rest of the world, whatever their age or medical condition.

For more guidance on how to write to someone who is dying and handle all communications with them, you might like to check out this information from Macmillan, the UK Cancer Charity.




  1. Excellent advice at a sensitive time.

  2. I love the way you’ve focused on responding to the dying person as an individual–and respecting her way of handling the approach of death.

    • Thanks Mary – I think there is a danger here similar to that which you sometimes get with disabled people, in that because you don’t know how to handle speaking or writing directly to the dying person you skirt around it and either speak to his/her carers, or make bland comments about the weather. It’s so important in either case to remember that they are still people.

  3. Such useful advice. A card or letter to someone who knows they are dying must be one of the hardest things of all to write – which might put some off writing at all, making the person feel isolated and unloved. This advice is so good, and would really help someone in that tremendously difficult situation. Thank you for writing it.

  4. Very insightful Suze, as always. I like your point about not sending sentimental stuff, even if the person who is dying is writing or posting sentimental stuff themselves.

    • Thanks, Angela – it’s an easy mistake to make, to think that because someone is putting out sentimental messages that they want to hear similar ones from others. I think it’s better to play safe here.

  5. I love the idea of writing “special day” rather than happy birthday.
    I think I’d be like your mother, I’d want to preserve as many memories of who I truly was rather that what I was becoming.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about my mother, Sarah. She was always very well-groomed and well turned out and hated to be seen without her hair and makeup being perfect. I managed to keep that going for as long as I could and even in her last few weeks we managed a comb-out, a little face powder and some lipstick. But it must have really depressed her to know that her body had become so distorted and useless. Terminal cancer is a horribly cruel way to go.

  6. I recently spoke to a person on the phone whom I knew was dying. A friend for many years, and one going too soon. I did not cry, or become too emotional. I was encouraging and reminisced. You see, I was speaking to this person about what I would say at my father’s memorial, which he was too sick to attend. He helped me devise the words I would speak extemporaneously, and now he is dead. When I am dying, I hope my friends will speak to me of what we have had, like the end of a good meal and a conversation that had to come to an end. Because all good meals, conversations, and lives do have endings. That they end well is my fondest hope for all of them.

  7. Edwin Cannings says

    Leona, who is dying of brain cancer, and I would like to either send a card or write a letter. We were snow birds from Canada and she looked after our weeds on our lot while we were back in Canada for the summer. she was a nice person but not well off , she can`t afford to have her kids come down from Minnesota and they cannot afford to come down either to Mesa AZ. where she is. I would like to send a card, but what. Ed.

    • You could get a pretty card – perhaps with her favourite flowers on it, if you know what they are – and write something like “Thinking of you in this lovely Spring season. Hope you are comfortable and rested. With our warm regards, Ed and Mary Cannings.”
      Hope that’s helpful

  8. Its really tough to say goodbye to someone who knows he/she is going to die soon but wishing them a goodbye through card can be a precious gift to them

    • Yes, it can. It helps if what you write in the card focuses on the importance of “now,” creating memories and enjoying the company of loved ones. Thanks for your comment! Sz


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