Valley Voices

5 questions to ask a hospice patient

What do 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.

5 things to say to someone you know

▪  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.

▪  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.

▪  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 OK?

▪  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”?

▪  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

▪  What is a time in your life that seemed to help define the future path you would take?

▪  Who was your first love? Or first car? (You may think of other “firsts” that could become part of this conversation.)

▪  How have things changed for the better, and for the worse, in today’s world compared to when you were younger?

▪  When young, what did you want to do when you grew up?

▪  Who have been your heroes – both the famous and the not-so-famous ones who have been part of your life?

5 bonus ideas

▪  Where is a place you’d love to return to for a few days? Why?

▪  Where did you meet your spouse?

▪  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 who 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.)

▪  Can I help you write a letter to a loved one?

▪  Is there something I can read to you? Watch with you? Help you do?

These are only 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.

We safely chatter about the weather because every ZIP code has lousy or lovely temperatures. 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, 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 them.

Larry Patten is a writer and minister and currently works at Hinds Hospice. He maintains (musings on faith) and (on dying, death and grief). Write to him at