Ask Celes – How Do You Comfort Someone When You Both Know His/Her Life Will End Very Soon?

Ask Celes

How would you comfort someone who is very sick or even dying? How do you comfort someone when you both know his life will end very soon? ~ Matt

Hi Matt.

I wouldn’t comfort the person because to comfort would be to perceive this person as coming from a place of lack. The fact is that he isn’t, by virtue of the fact that he is still alive. I mean, he could already be dead, right? But he isn’t.

The fact that he is still alive right now and not gone yet is a blessing in itself. Even if he may be in deep (physical) pain, the fact that he is still alive allows him to do final tasks which would not have been possible if he was already dead. (For example, saying one final goodbye to his loved ones.)

So rather than comfort, I would tell the person to treasure every moment he has right now. Because every moment he is getting now is a gift. The fact that he is still alive and not gone yet is a blessing in itself. 

I assume that this person’s impending death is unavoidable. I assume that he has already sought the best medical care available out there. I assume everything has been done to salvage his situation and all experts have concluded that nothing can be done to prolong his life.

So in that case, rather than adopt a “woe is me” attitude and simply “wait” for the Grim Reaper to take him, I will also tell this person to make the best out of his remaining moments on earth. These moments, however short, are all gifts in themselves, especially when you consider that people are dying all around the world right now and he (or even you or me) could well be the next to go.

Case in point: Just a month ago, my friend’s friend’s brother who was in his early 20s died while driving. On the spot. Just like that. It was a hit-and-run. They were still looking for witnesses the last I heard.

Ask this person who is about to pass on:

  1. What are the things that he has always wanted to do but has not done yet? Of this list, what are the things he wants to take a dip in and attempt to complete before he dies?
  2. What are the things he wants to do before he/she dies? For example, tell his loved ones how much he loves them in person? Repair a broken relationship with his mom/dad? Reconnect with his long-lost brother/sister? Revisit his childhood playground? Spend a day at his favorite beach? Etc.
  3. What life lessons has he learned that he wants to pass on to his children/friends/loved ones? How about writing them down in a notebook so they can refer to it forever, in memory of him, and to live true to his lessons?
  4. Has he written his will? Division of assets following a person’s death can be a sticky matter. By writing his will, he will be saving his family much headache after he dies.
  5. What does he want people to say at his funeral? How about giving his own eulogy a go?

Ask him to get working on these items right away. In fact, you can even work on them with him. Through doing these tasks, he will be truly making the best out of his/her remaining moments, rather than withering them away in self-pity and self-loathe.

I recall three years ago, I came across this personal blog that had linked to my bucket list article. Like all blog owners, I like to check out referring URLs to my blog. This blog came up as one of the referring urls because someone had clicked on the link to my bucket list article on that blog.

So, I checked it out in curiosity. And I started reading.

Apparently the blogger’s husband/boyfriend had been stricken by a terminal disease (maybe cancer). At the time the latest entry was written, he had about nine months left to live. Devastated by the news, they pretty much started to “count down” to his final moment together while treasuring the time left.

Up until she came across the bucket list article on PE.

Reading it made her realize that there can be hope and meaning left even in one’s final moments on earth. That—hey—yes, her husband/boyfriend would be gone in nine month’s time, but at least it wasn’t six months. Or three months. Or one month. Or right there and then.

So rather than lie on the hospital bed and wait for death to take him, she got him to write down his bucket list items, which included traveling to certain destinations and completing certain quaint tasks. And they set off to “conquer” that list. “Complete the list or die doing it in the process”, was the message I took away.

That blog was created to chronicled their adventures doing his bucket list in his remaining time on earth.

Unfortunately, I lost the URL to the blog and I don’t know what happened to him or her since then. But I knew, from reading the blog, that they were already on the right path. That they were able to see light in a situation which most can only see darkness. That they were able to make the best out of what they were given rather than beat “God” down for their self-created unhappiness.

Here are two quotes I would like to leave you with.

The first one is by Randy Pausch, a famous lecturer from Carnegie Mellon who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006 and chose to make good of his remaining time on earth by continuing to teach through lectures, most notably The Last Lecture. He has since passed away.

Inspirational Quote: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” ~ Randy Pausch

More inspirational quotes on life at Personal Excellence Quotes

The second quote is by Richard Bach, which helped me to derive meaning from not being dead yet:

Inspirational Quote: “Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” ~ Richard Bach

More inspirational quotes on purpose at Personal Excellence Quotes

We will never know when it’s our turn to go, so let’s make the best out of our remaining moments on earth, shall we? Let’s always be the best that we can be and strive to live our best life ever.


Image: Question mark

This is part of the Ask Celes section. If you have a question to ask me, proceed to the Ask Celes page. Check out past Ask Celes questions here.

  • Elton

    Dear Matt,

    I can share some of my insights here for your reference.

    Comfort is subjective to that someone’s own perception in the situation he/she is in before moving on next journey, what he wants to do and the belief of what he/she is able to do on the planet Earth for the last few moments. Gratitude collection and bucket list is something that i support at the moment.

    I have similar experience in similar situation, as it happened to 2 of my dear relatives and (one of them is my own father 20 years ago when our family knew he was dying from heart attack). I remembered me and my father back then used to talk about our life story, addressing simple things in life and go sightseeing during the last few weeks, and of course my father despite the conditions, instill me and my family to do voluntary work to educate others in our best effort so that we do not waste our life unnecessarily. There is also another case where one of my friend who is well known IT expert just passed away peacefully in sleep about 2 weeks ago, and some of our friends are shocked as we are planning to catch up during Chinese New Year holiday and left his wife and 10 kids. (so life is short and unpredictable).

    Another point is the importance of support from closed ones, and family members aftermath in form of love, friendship or necessary support you can help with. One of my life lesson karma in preparation for journey in afterlife. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.

  • rahul patil

    Its very touching post . . I like your all post . . I think you are one of the best personal development blogger, God bless you!!!!!!

  • zingfairy

    A friend of mine died of cancer at Christmas, he was in his 30s. Despite being in extreme agony (the doctors were planning to operate to inject concrete in his spine to lessen the pain), in his last few months he managed to fulfil a boyhood dream of riding in a tank (arranged by some friends of his), go to a rock concert, and spend a lot of time with many friends via our shared favourite hobby.

    I definitely second Celes’s idea of moving through the bucket list, and if you’re a close friend, trying to help organise some of these ideas so that they really happen.

  • Laurel

    I agree with what’s said in the article, and I would add: if a friend is ill or dying, to continue to just be there for them. Unfortunately, too many of us are uncomfortable about the thought of mortality and either abandon their friends, or treat them differently. When a person’s world is falling apart around them, they really need to know that their friends still love them.

  • Lito

    Tell him/her that it’s going to be alright; that his/her journey here on earth will soon end, and that he’s/she’s going to be starting another journey on another dimension… many are afraid to die because they think that this is the only life they’ve got.

  • Subhiksha

    Thank you.. my grandmother is bedridden and I didn’t know how to console her. But now I have an idea how to change her mind..!

  • Angela


    I think this article was very well put. I have been in this situation before. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own confusion of what to say and what not to say that we miss the opportunity to truly be there for our friend or family member. One of the things that are really regrettable when someone does pass on, is all the things that you wish you would have said or put aside and it is too late. When a person has the opportunity to take the moments left to do what he/she wants to do or say they can heal themselves peacefully. I think helping them realize how that might bring peace to their time left is an honor.

  • Bob

    Hi Matt and Celes,

    I found that when you talk with someone who is dying you can understand many things about how they lived and approached life. Sometimes it is a whirlwind of emotions. It is a time of understanding seeing what they have accomplished and reminding them of the good times you have had together(if you have had them) and asking them about their cherished memories.

    It might also be useful for later reference to make a timeline and ask them their various reasons for doing what they did during their life. Ask about the family tree and connections with friends. Are there any messages for loved ones who aren’t present.

    Some people want a certain type of funeral for example bikers would like all their friends to come on their bikes with the coffin being taken to the church by a motorcycle and a sidecar, others may have a family plot of land set aside and so on. Where would they like their ashes scattered. Each situation is unique and most people want to share or make amends for things they have or have not done. Hope this helps.

  • Migs

    I have a friend in this position and this is what works in his case:

    I don’t talk about the disease or sickness. I treat him exactly like it was any other day. Like tomorrow is forever. I have realized that it all came to sharing the things we like to do. I’ve let him tell tell me how he feels regarding his sickness when he wants to rather than me asking and making him look pitiful. He knows he’s sick, so I don’t need to remind him. Believe it or not we were playing with his morphine, oxy, and other meds kidding about which was stronger, but never touching the point of his terminal cancer. So don’t touch the disease, just the cool stuff you share with him.

    • Celes

      Hi Migs, I like that you do not talk about the disease. Sometimes doing so is simply giving power to it. Treating the day just like any other day helps to keep the person’s mind off the sickness which helps him/her to stay in an upbeat mode.

      Sometimes though, know that it’s okay to talk to him or ask him about disease. Just think of it (the disease) like an everyday topic, like “How’s your new job?” or “How’s that jam you just bought?” Just as talking about it too much can be giving power to it, intentionally avoiding the topic is also giving power to it. The best is to treat everything as per normal (as you said) and talk as per normal.

  • Matt

    Hi Celes

    First thank you for taking the time to answer my question. I have enjoyed all the recent Ask Celes articles and I am glad you have kept it as an ongoing part of PE.

    I submitted this question because I know sooner or later I will almost certainly help a loved one who faces this situation. I really had no idea how I might handle it when someone I know is dying. Normally when a person faces a troubling situation we can look at it as an opportunity or a second chance. If someone is getting over a bad break up we can remind them that this is their chance to find a relationship that is right for them. If someone is laid off we can help them find an even better job. But death is so final and it’s hard to think of a way to cheer up someone who might be distraught over their own illness.

    Now that I have read your article I occurs to me that someone who is upset about an illness might actually be upset because they have unfinished business. They might have lost personal connection with important people, never reached an important goal, or never experienced a certain activity. Helping the person do at least some of these things could really help to turn their spirits around.

    Also helping a person write their will or messages to family would help. Some people may be most troubled by the idea that after death they will not be around to help loved ones. A will or writing life lessons could help this person to feel there is something left over that will endure and continue to help others.

    You shared a lot of great advice here. Rather than feeling sorry for a sick person and waiting for death I have a much better idea about how I can aid them during a time like that. Also this article could help me in the future if I myself face a serious illness. I could use the ideas here to help family feeling better about my own eventual passing.

  • John

    The post initially make me to think, at last it inspired a motivation within myself. Thanks for the post..I like reading your blog.

  • Sowm

    I love this post. I am in a similar situation right now that I need your input on…
    I am home after a year and a half to visit my dying grampa. Last time I was here, we used to talk and laugh together and he would go out for short walks and demand to eat foods that he liked etc. This time when I came back I saw that he is lying in his bed, hooked up to four different tubes for breathing, eating etc. All he does is breathe and sometimes open his eyes and look at us.That’s all.
    I don’t know what does he thinks about all day. I don’t know what to say to him cz nothing I say can make him feel any better. I try to talk about the things he taught me, the good times we had and how we love him so much and are happy to be with him. We try not to talk about death or pain when around him.
    I know that next time I come back home, he probably won’t be there. How should I make the most of these last moments with him?

    • Celes

      Hey Sowm, what do you think you can do/say to make the best out of your final moments with him, based on what you’ve read in this post?

      • Sowm

        That I love him and I am lucky that I got to see him and spend some time with him. I am lucky to be able to meet him every day and tell him how blessed we are to still have him among us?

        • Celes

          Hey Sowm! :) Do you think that will help you make the best out of your last moments with him? Anything else you can say/do?

          • Sowm

            Can’t think of anything else to ‘do’. He can’t physically do anything. What am I missing here… Suggestions?

            • Celes

              Hi Sowm, don’t give your power away. Remember, you are his granddaughter. If there’s anyone who can help him to make the best out of your last moments with him, it’s you. Whatever suggestions “we” can give will be nothing more than random suggestions that will likely have random meaning to you and your grandfather. I’m not a believer of getting answers from the outside but learning to find the answers we seek from the inside (us).

              You yourself said that both of you used to talk and laugh together. You were also with him when he would go out for short walks and demand to eat foods that he liked. Who would know your grandfather more than you, his beloved granddaughter? Based on what you know about your grandfather, what do you think is on his mind while he lies on his bed today? What do you think your grandfather wants to tell you, and what would you want to tell him in return?

              Last but not least, is there really a need to feel compelled to “make the best” out of the final moments with him? Is it possible that in your anxiety to think of ways to “make the best” out of his final moments, you are actually missing out on these final moments altogether — being truly there in spirit for him? Maybe all he wants is just to feel your presence, hear your voice, and see your smile. Maybe there was never anything you needed to “do” or “say” to him per se, but simply be present and be there in spirit for the man whom you have spent a good part of your life with and who is going to depart you soon for a different life ahead.

  • Christina

    Hi Celes,

    This is a difficult topic and you’ve handled it with such grace. Thank you for your positive and compassionate perspective!


    • Celes

      Thanks Christina! :)

  • Daniel

    Great insights Celes. Thanks !

    • Celes

      Thanks Daniel! :)

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