5 Questions to Ask a Hospice Patient

On conversations that matter . . .

What can I say?

With some hospice patients, even when they are friends or family members, we’re unsure of how to keep a conversation going. It may be easy to begin a chat about today’s weather or yesterday’s news, but what about having a conversation that matters?

And for other hospice patients, maybe when we’re first-time visitors from their faith community or a new volunteer from hospice, we can also have doubts about what to say after the introductions and mentioning that it’s hot (or breezy, humid, snowy) outside.

Here are a handful of suggestions for deepening a conversation with someone in hospice care.

(And below the suggestions, if you want to skip my optimistic examples, I reflect about a recent “failed” visit with an acquaintance nearing death.)

5 things to say to someone you know and love . . .

  1. This is why I admire you – tell her or him about a time that truly mattered in your relationship. And then give your loved one an opportunity to respond.
  1. Is there something you have tried to say to me, or other loved ones, that no one has yet to understand or hear? Give your loved one a chance to be heard.
  1. Is there a family member or friend you’d like me to check on over the next few years . . . to make sure she or he is doing okay?
  1. Where could I spend time thinking about you? We have cemeteries, and places where ashes are spread, but what are some of the special places in a person’s life beyond the “obvious?”
  1. Ask specific questions about their family/personal history. Think about what this person may remember in unique ways.

5 things to say to someone you’ve never met, or only know a little . . .

  1. What is a time in your life that seemed to help define the future path you’d take?
  1. Who was your first love? Or first car? (You may think of other “firsts” that could become part of this conversation.)
  1. How have things changed for the better, and for the worse, in today’s world compared to when you were younger?
  1. When young, what did you want to do when you grew up?
  1. Who have been your heroes—both the famous and the not-so-famous ones that have been part of your life?

5 bonus suggestions, which may work for those you know or don’t know . . .

  1. Where is a place that you’ve been to that you’d love to return to for a few days? Why?
  1. Where did you meet your spouse?
  1. What do you want to eat that I can bring to you? (While some hospice patients aren’t able to eat, this can be a powerful question for those that can. In his book, “On Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande writes about a dying man whose goals included eating chocolate ice cream and watching football. Trivial? Sure . . . and yet, for him, maybe not.)
  1. Can I help you write a letter to a loved one?
  1. Is there something I can read to you? Watch with you? Help you do?

These are only inadequate suggestions, ways that might start or continue (and even deepen) a conversation. If you try any of them, and they work, I’ll be happy.

+     +     +

If I’m offering optimistic “conversation starter” ideas, I should also be realistic with the likelihood of failure. Failure may be too harsh a description, but it’s how I recently felt.


Not long ago, I visited someone I’ve known for years. Though not a close friend, her active community involvement meant that our paths frequently crossed over several decades. I’m aware of silly and serious stories about her. She knows the same about me. We have mutual friends and share similar values.

She is dying.

Without identifying her illness, it is slow and relentless. While she may have—now or later—physical pain, the greater pain is likely feeling helpless, useless, and having little personal control. Several of the most important people in her life have already died. Because of the illness, she frequently dozed during my visit: answering a question with a whispered yes or nod of the head and then “drifting away” for a few seconds. Nothing we briefly and awkwardly talked about held her attention or seemed to uplift her spirits.

Did my words add to her day? I doubt it. But I promised to follow-up on some information . . . and I will. And I think, in some minor way, my presence with her for a few moments was appreciated. Still, there was that feeling of failure as we said goodbye.

Some visits will feel like that. I have no magic words to put a “happy face” on the situation. But this I believe: an awkward visit is better than not visiting, sending a note of appreciation is better than no note, emailing or texting is better than a blank screen, and a short phone chat (or only leaving a voice message) is better than no call.

+     +     +

We safely chatter about the weather because every zip code has lousy or lovely temperatures, and there’s usually too much or not enough rain. Hey . . . who doesn’t enjoy the autumn colors or weary of cloudy skies?

But whether or not you have a meaningful time with another facing some of their “worst days” will often depend on questions that have less to do with the outside temperature and more to do with our interior joys and fears and memories.

Reluctantly, I realize that certain visits will be frustrating. No question—yours or mine—will matter.

But perhaps one of my questions* will add to a meaningful experience for a few visitors and visits. (I hope so . . .)

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

*And if you have ideas for “conversation starters,” I’d love to hear about ‘em!

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  1. You triggered such a wonderful memory. I went to visit someone from my church who had just been moved from the hospital into hospice. I did not know her well and did not know you to ask for a suggestion of what to say. I knew she loved music and reading so I asked her what her favorite book was. I expected her to say the Bible. She gave me the title of her favorite book and asked me if I’d ever read it. Nope. She encouraged me to find a copy, it had widened her horizons. I told her I would. I found a copy at a second hand store and started reading it. It was the bawdiest book I’d ever read. I finished the book and headed back to visit her again, book in hand. When she saw that I had it with me she started laughing until she was in tears, gasping for air. I looked her straight in the eye and asked if she wanted to discuss it? We both collapsed in laughter. Her nurse came in to find out what the noise was about. I handed over the book and told her I could not explain it and do it justice so it was hers to enjoy.
    Thanks for the memory. I will keep your lists for future visits.

    • Ha! Yes, there are those who claim the Bible as their most favorite book . . . and then there are others! What was the book, or can’t you tell to protect “confidentiality!!”

      Thanks so much for sharing this!!!

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