The Importance of Saying Goodbye When You Are Dying

Updated on January 23, 2017

How do you say goodbye to your loved ones when you know you are dying?

Saying goodbye properly depends on who you are saying goodbye to, their age and level of understanding, their relationship to you, their stage of grieving, and their ability to cope.

However for you and your loved ones, saying goodbye is important.

Researchers found that completion was an important end of life activity, which includes:

  • life review,
  • resolving conflicts,
  • spending time with family and friends, and
  • saying goodbye.

Saying goodbye will be the most difficult with loved ones who are still in the denial stage of grieving. They don't want to believe that you are truly going to die, therefore they block out your attempts to properly say goodbye. If you have time to wait a few days or weeks until they are more receptive, then that is probably the best option.

Another way would be for you to write them a deeply personal letter, which they can read in their own time, or if you have the technology and skills, perhaps a small video just for them might help.

These options allow you to say goodbye in the way you want, and allow them to properly benefit from hearing your words when they are ready. You will miss out on a frank and caring exchange with them by doing it this way, but it is better than trying in frustration to discuss what they don't want to hear, and never telling them the important things.

Please see the full study: In search of a good death: Observations of patients, families and providers by Karen E. Steinhauser, PhD; Elizabeth C. Clipp, PhD, MS, RN; Maya McNeilly, PhD;Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH; Lauren M. McIntyre, PhD; and James A. Tulsky, MD,

Saying Goodbye to Children

Children will be your next hardest audience to say goodbye to. If you have children close to you who are too young to understand or remember your conversations then a letter, video or other form of recording will be a treasure that can be kept for them until they are old enough to understand.

Older children should be spoken to frankly. They will have heard whispers around the family, they will notice changes in behavior and they will know that something is wrong. You will have a very hard task saying goodbye, but it is only fair to them that you do.

My Experience

Many people try to protect the children from death, but it does them a disservice. My father passed away just before my 8th birthday from a brain tumor. I remember hearing the whispers, and seeing my family upset about something to do with daddy who had been taken to hospital suddenly.

After a few days of frenzied activity, phone calls and tears, I knew that he was either dying or dead. That turned out to be the day he actually passed, and when later that night my mother came to tell us I told her I knew.

Now, 40 years later I still regret not being allowed to see him before he died, and being excluded from the funeral because my sister (6) and I were deemed too young to go.

When my Nana passed away, my daughter was 4 and very close to her. I remembered my experience, and included her and my son (10) in visits, saying goodbye and the funeral.

Again when my mother in law passed the children were 10 & 16 and again were included in saying goodbye and the funeral. They both coped well and were grateful for the opportunity to say goodbye for themselves.

So what age is too young? Well only you know the children involved and their maturity, but I would caution against trying to protect them, they will know that something is wrong and be fearful and confused.

As I mentioned, my daughter was 4, and I don't consider her too young. She still remembers great nana with affection and a smile. I would suggest that perhaps under 3 they may be too young to understand or remember, but I am sure having a goodbye hug in a safe calm environment for your benefit would not harm them.

If you are unsure about such a step with young ones ask your primary health carer, particularly a palliative care nurse if you have one, or a social worker, they have a lot of experience in this field and can advise you accordingly.

Other Considerations

For everyone else you should say goodbye in person if possible, in the manner that best fits your relationship with them. You might let them know your beliefs regarding afterlife, talk about your fears if you think it appropriate, talk about your shared memories, talk about what you hope for their future, particularly if they are a spouse, or elder child. You might want to let them know that it is fine for them to form other relationships when they are ready and the right person comes along.

Of course your closest loved ones will need to know practical things like where your will is held, what your wishes are regarding medical interventions, funeral, etc. You might want to write these down for them because they will be emotional and forget much of what was said of a practical nature.

If you are facing death yourself or that of a loved one and want more information I have more lenses on the subject, and a whole website dedicated to the subject..

Finally when saying goodbye to the many friends and acquaintances you have collected in this life, a letter, to be read out at your memorial service or funeral is appropriate.

If you wish to make your goodbye a little more personal you could make a video farewell to be played.

I went to a funeral two years ago, a friend lost a son unexpectedly, and at the funeral they played a power point presentation, which was made up of images from the boy's life, and music suggested by those he was close to which reminded them of him. At my father-in-law's funeral a few months ago we played music from his era whilst showing pictures of his life. Although we were sad to say goodbye, we were able to smile and remember the wonderful times we had with him.

Perhaps you could do something along the same lines as a farewell, with music you love and pictures you would like them to remember, memories, which were shared with those close to you and those who passed through your life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    Reader Feedback

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      • profile image


        6 months ago

        Thank you for this I'm dying I have cancer and I didn't know what to do

      • profile image


        21 months ago

        i was serching for how to say goodbye bye me becuse i am going to commit suside in a none painful way.....

      • profile image

        margaret bonnar 

        2 years ago

        how would you start a letter to your loved ones when you know your are dying.

      • Lady Lorelei profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 

        8 years ago from Canada

        It is very difficult to say goodbye to someone who has been so close in life.

      • Lady Lorelei profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 

        8 years ago from Canada

        Your lenses on aging and bereavement are absolutely wonderful. The only suggestion I can give you to make them more people and Google friendly is to change your generic module heading READER FEEDBACK to one more tuned to your article title. Wonderful lens.

      • profile image


        8 years ago

        Hi thank You for your lens, and may God bless you and your family, I was a nurses aid when I was younger and learned an awful lot about death, and I spent the last 25yrs looking after my Mam, she passed on to a better place 10 years ago and I found it very hard saying goodbuy, but for her sake I let her go with the angles. Please give her my love as I feel it is the only thing we can bring with us, see you there, Stephanie


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