“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Genesis 1:1, 1:2, 1:3

Back to Basics: The Word

According to the story in the Bible, the Word was the very first ability created for humans.  Without words, how else would we communicate with each other?  Then how would we find our heart and soul’s connection with one another?  How else would we find meaning from living (and dying), if we didn’t have a way of expressing what was going on inside of us, if not through words?  In this article, we will unpack the concept of words, and how words of encouragement can go both ways, especially when someone is dying.

When we are born, we start out into the world with a whopping crying sound.   We identified this expression with the word “cry”. Somehow, we agreed that every time someone made that same sound it was called a “cry”.

We have words for everything.  Right now, you are reading many letters that make up a plethora of words, that turn into sentences and paragraphs.  We know words have been around since the beginning of humankind.  One can even study the history of words, called Etymology,[1] finding how words and their meanings change over time and are interpreted differently depending on the culture/environment.

Words have been used to express impending danger, surroundings, actions, objects, desires and descriptions of plants, animals, feelings, thoughts, ideas, dreams, and everything in between.  But, when we are in situations that are uncomfortable, we don’t always know the “right” words to use, so we alter our behavior and shut down, because we are tongue-tied, and don’t want to reveal that we don’t have the words we need to express ourselves or to soothe someone else’s experience.

Words have an innate sense of power any way you use them.  Words can be used to hurt, slander, criticize or damage one’s heart purposely.  Words can also be used to uplift, praise, and heal one’s heart, and even defend freedom and express oppression.  Words can also be misunderstood or taken the wrong way, depending on the other person’s perception and experience.  Words can be soothing, comforting, kind and thoughtful.  Words are gifts given to human beings.  It’s also the tone with which we utter those words that can make all the difference.

Words are like invisible arrows that have the ability to pierce the veil of the seen and unseen worlds. Depending on how we say what we say, we can reach the essence of someone’s ego with kindness in a gentle forthright way when the words come from the heart. We can also stab someone’s ego wide open, and watch it bleed when we really want to hurt that person – when the words come from the head. It really depends on our intention in choosing our words.

When someone you know is dying, you want to give them words of encouragement, to lift their spirits, to let them know they are okay, to express affection and love, and perhaps to let them know that their dying days are a natural part of living.  But how do you say those things without sounding so matter of fact and casual about it all?  After all, it’s not you who is dying.  How can you possibly grasp what someone else is going through, especially when we are talking about the experience we know nothing about? And you may even reflect that perhaps soothing words do not speak to the dying individual – we cannot know how it feels until we find ourselves in their shoes when our turn comes.

You may feel like your heart is breaking in two, anticipating your loss, and you may have absolutely no idea what to say to the very person you care so much about.  Where are the words when you need them the most?  Where did the cat go with your tongue, you might ask?

You’re split in two.  On one hand, you want to be with your dying loved one, to tell them how much you love them, and how much you’ll miss them.  On the other hand, you may feel resistant to visit them, because you don’t know what to say or even how to behave!  Most people in our death-phobic society have no idea what to say or how to behave, so you are definitely not alone.  These speaking skills are never learned skills in school or elsewhere.

You might even feel ashamed and embarrassed that you are not fully equipped to handle this situation better, and don’t want to admit it to anyone, even to yourself!

So, how can you truly be there for your loved ones, when you are not prepared, thinking that you don’t have the “right” words that would make your loved one feel better. Is it even possible that you can actually make a difference with your words of encouragement?

The short answer is absolutely YES!

Also, remember something very important, sometimes people don’t need your words, they just need your presence. Your kind presence speaks volumes. Silence is unsaid words, mixed in with feelings, and can act as holding space in a tender, quiet, sacred way, as if in an unspoken agreement, or just “being” in the stillness of life, and in the pause between the breaths.

It is amazing that sometimes when someone is dying, he/she can actually give us words of encouragement!  Just when we think we are comforting them, they end up comforting us.

Story: The Tree Trunk

Several years ago, my 86-year old dad, who had dementia, was hospitalized from a bacterial infection that was highly contagious. His condition was aggravated by arthritis in his neck and with a bone spur protruding into his throat which prevented him from being able to eat or swallow. So when he ate he would aspirate with food going into his lungs instead of his stomach, and he’d end up coughing and choking.

When I got to the hospital, the doctors told me that there was really nothing else they could do, other than inserting feeding tubes into his stomach. When my dad was awake, they had to restrain him from pulling out his IV.  It was painful to watch him struggle so much and definitely not the way he wanted to live.

The doctor told us he’d have another five days to live, and we could take him off the life support systems and let nature take its course. It felt like the kindest thing we could do for him.

When they removed his throat tubing, and the sedation wore off, my dad became conscious, and said in his loud, enthusiastic raspy voice: “Can you believe what happened to me?  They removed a HUGE tree trunk from my throat that stopped me from talking!”  I said, “WOW, dad, you’re right, that is really hard to believe!”


With his new-found voice, he began to explain how that “thing” in the back of his throat wasn’t working.  He said: “You know that thing, called a ‘clitoris’ that hangs at the back of the throat?  It isn’t working anymore.”  Well, I have to tell you, when we heard that (and we have it on tape), our sides felt like they were spitting from laughing so hard. Regardless of the wrong word usage, my dad kept his sense of humor right to his last breath.

Then he loudly and enthusiastically announced that he was hungry. When I asked him what he wanted to eat, he responded with, “I want a hamburger!”   Until the sumptuously delicious hamburger arrived, we gave him teeny tiny spoons of yogurt.  He loved every single bite, and would give out big oohs and ahs! Sometimes, as I said, we don’t need words to describe what we feel.  We can use sounds that are self-descriptive. “I want for nothing, except the hamburger,” was all he said when asked what else he wanted. His good-natured toned answer allowed us another laugh, furthermore because his tone was so lucidly resolute and decisive.

Then, all of a sudden something miraculous happened.  Regardless that his body wasn’t getting better, my dad began to speak to each of us – my brother, my sisters, and his grandchildren, in a way he never did before, as lucid as we had EVER heard him with a sense of deep wisdom.

Perhaps only God knows how this man in a hospital bed, had words of encouragement for all of us as if the words that were coming out of his mouth were the words of an ORACLE. He was giving his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren insightful wisdom about living.

My dad’s life was a hard one because he always felt he hadn’t done enough, as a son, a husband, a father, and a provider.  We decided to prove him differently and so before his dementia really kicked in, we gave him a big 85th surprise party in front of the 300 people in the Jewish Home for the Aging, where he lived.  The year prior I had contacted the Navy to see what medals my dad was awarded, and I received them in the mail nine months later.

Story: The Tree Trunk

With the greatest honor, we presented him with all of his medals framed in a giant shadow box.  He didn’t even know he had received so many!  We reminded him of how valuable he was in World War II, and how much he sacrificed for our country even suffering some loss of hearing from being the engineer in the belly of a mine-sweeper. Those honoring words of valued appreciation and gratitude lifted his spirits, never expecting to be honored in such a public way.

That sense of value carried him for a while, and so the doctors told us to take my dad home.  Again the doctor said my dad would most likely last five days. We called Skirball Hospice[2] to set everything up at my younger sister’s house.  The hospice was terrific and they sent everything he needed, including the hospital bed and all supplies.

Story: The Tree Trunk

The day after he came to my sister’s, I went over to my sister’s house, and my dad was sitting up in a wheelchair having coffee on the front porch!  It felt like a miracle to me, and I was so happy to see him with a new lease on life!

Everyone was astounded at his “recovery.” Dad “rallied” for a day or two.  This is an expected process for people who are dying.[3]  He was hungry and he wanted to eat!  Often time, before someone is dying, their bodies shut down, not even wanting to eat or drink anything, but not in my dad’s case.  He was ferociously hungry and expressed it with gusto!  We made him all of his favorite dishes.  If he said he wanted chocolate cake, we would give him a chocolate cake.  If he said he wanted Jello, we would make him Jello.  We stayed by his side and gave him nibbles of anything he wanted!

The most joyful of all was that we actually got to spend eleven days with dad before he died.  He outlived the doctor’s estimation, which was a beautiful grace period for all of us. Here’s a photo of my dad, just days before he died.

We all upheld him with words of gratitude and appreciation for all that he had given us growing up, and for him to make complete peace with himself on the father and provider that he was.  We quashed any negative statements of less than, with speaking to him words of how we all felt so fortunate that he was born, how grateful and appreciative of everything he gave us – tangible and intangible. We reminded him of his large and growing family, legacy living from his existence. There are 5 siblings in our family and we all have children, and he comes from a family of 4 siblings and they all have children, grandchildren, great grandchildren!  That’s a big family legacy. 

 Story: The Tree TrunkI created a video montage of my dad’s life for him to see, while he was still living, consisting of all his family and friends who had been in his life, with his favorite jitterbug music playing so he could watch the video over and over again.

 The video was another way to express how valuable he was, to remind him of how many people loved him, and how meaningful his life was to others.  All of us showered him with love and laughed with him over everything he said and did.  He was really humorous!  The power of that video was impressive. Every day as he watched that video over and over again,  something began to shift.

As the days passed, we asked him if he had anything to say to any of us that he wanted us to know.  We went down the line of everyone in our family, and he would articulate in the most amazing way the qualities he saw in each of us – the gifts we had to give to this world, and again how proud he felt. We were all beaming like little kids to hear such wonderful words of acknowledgment and pride being so wisely spoken by our dad.

Creating a video montage was a way of giving words of value and encouragement to my dad, reinforcing how much we loved him, and we got those precious words of encouragement in return that we didn’t even expect.  From all the conversations we shared together, thanking him for being our dad, and creating a video about his life, my dad went from feeling like a failure to feeling blessed and loved and valued, before he took his last breath.

Words of encouragement for the dead doesn’t necessarily mean telling your loved one that he or she is going to get better.  Of course, we all knew dad was not going to get better.  It was more to assure him that he was okay, safe and loved, and that his life mattered, just because he lived, that he left us, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as his legacy to carry on with life from his nuggets of wisdom, and that we were grateful for him.

Looking at the human experience from the soul’s perspective helps to shift our living and dying experiences into healing experiences, instead of horrible ones by using encouraging words that are not based in false hope, but out of great honor, dignity and regard for the life to dying phase of life.

So, when you find yourself with someone whom you love who is dying, be brave. Go into your heart and use encouraging words for anyone you love.  Use your experience wisely, lovingly and mindfully, always expressing their value with sincerity, encouraging and always uplifting, holding the space with honor, dignity, and regard.  A gentle reminder to not forget the humor.  Being human can seem pretty absurd sometimes, especially when the body is breaking down, but it’s all part of the human experience.  Just BE conscious of who you are, where you are, and with whom you are with, giving yourself and the ones you love your presence, which is one of the greatest gifts we can give.  You can do it!

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  Use your words to encourage and uplift those you love in your life, while they are living.  Practice it and when that time comes, you will find words of encouragement that will flow out of your heart.  If you think you cannot do it, invent it and repeat to yourself how they sound.

Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”  Helen Keller couldn’t verbally articulate her words of encouragement, but just look at what she meant by this statement.  If you are at a loss for words when someone you love is dying, dig deeper, dive into your heart and soul, and hear the words of encouragement that want to come out.  They are like a blanket of love.  And, if there are no words that need to be said, then BE with the extraordinary silence, offering silent words of encouragement for anyone who is ill or dying.

Joseph Campbell said, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures in life.  Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”  Words of encouragement are the treasures in life you need to hear for yourself and gifts you get to give to others.

You see, there are so many words of encouragement, said by so many brilliant people from all walks of life.  See what words of encouragement come from your own heart and share them.

It’s your life.  Enjoy the journey.  And, remember to bring love into everything you do.

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