How To Listen to the Dying

by Olga Nikolajev RN, MA, CT

Listening in this way can be used for any communication process, especially when “listening” to someone speaking about dying and death, or any difficult conversation. If we can start listening with presence, empathy, compassion, forgiveness during these discussions, imagine how much better listeners we will be with other conversations, developing true heart to heart communication, speaking from the heart as our ancestors did.

Think about a situation when you had a difficult conversation, especially when you were the one speaking, what characteristic in the “listener” did you value? What did the “listener” do that made it “easier” for you to speak the unspeakable?

What I will share with you conveys some of the key elements many of the dying patients and those grieving value in the “listener.” In addition, it is also what most of us need and want in order to feel like we have been “heard.”

Because  many of us have our own life experiences and knowledge feel free to weave what you know and the knowledge you already have to see if this perspective works for you. And as always don’t believe anything I have to say, test it out to see if it’s true for you, share it with another and see where the truth lies.

This perspective has many layers, what I mean is that it can convey the elements at a very surface or deep level.

To illustrate, the starting place, presence could just be applied at a very surface level, when the listener is just present, there in the space. Hard to have a listener without anyone there, so they must at least be present. Now presence, is more about how the listener occupies the space, and speaks to their nature, their spirit. This kind of presence comes from our spiritual aspect. Many have associated this spiritual aspect to the Sun the energy of Illumination and enlightenment. Just think about any of the “enlightened” masters, and you can almost “feel” their presence, even when all they are doing is sitting and listening. So how do you attain presence? One way is to connect to your own spirit, and the simplest way and I would consider one of the most effective is to be out in nature, just being. If that is not possible, just to go for a walk, you can connect to your spirit through meditation, or just simply being in the quiet. And if there is no time and the space demands your presence, then breath in – breath out. I am not saying it is easy, and I have on a number of occasions lost my “presence” when the person speaking said something that triggered me into defense but the work I must do to learn this skill is worth it because when we have presence we “radiate” with light and our inner spirit, the person speaking has a sense of our essence. Presence is the 1st step.

Now we move to empathy. Empathy is about being “with” the person, not just in the presence sense, as we just discussed, but there is now a sense of “shared” experience, the listener’s willingness to put themselves into the shoes of the other. The skills here are those of body language, leaning in to convey interest, showing small gestures such as head nodding, saying ahh mmm, and really listening, with the desire to understand. Use active listening skills such as open ended questions, summary reflection and reflective inquiry to build rapport and establish empathy. The listener pays attention to the speaker’s physical body language and facial expression to then feed back that they have paid attention and can “see” the speaker, and asks questions about what the speaker is feeling, hence conveying their interest and desire to understand. Empathy is the 2nd step.

From a place of our emotional aspect, the place of the heart, water, goddess beauty, the place of compassion, which is generated when the listener now conveys their feelings, not from a place of now needing to be listened to but from the place of “being touched” by the story of the speaker. Compassion is an emotion that is a sense of “shared” suffering with the desire to alleviate that suffering, and comes from empathy but is different from empathy in that the listener now needs to open their own heart and allow some of the suffering of the speaker to get into their space, and sometimes this creates a bit of discomfort, a feeling of shared suffering. Here the skills of active listening such as paraphrasing and reflecting can be used to convey compassion, affirming the speaker’s experience as valid and true for them. Compassion as the 3rd step.

When we have presence, are able to convey empathy and open our own heart with compassion we come to the place of Forgiveness. From forgiveness the listener can have an open mind without judgement and criticism. We must be the empty cup and just receive the story. The reason why I have called this element forgiveness is because those speaking about their own life when facing death, have a desire for a clear reflection, someone who can be a witness to their story who can reflect clearly what they heard, which enables the speaker to forgive themselves. Forgiveness is the 4th step.

When we allow a person to speak the unspeakable without the fear that the listener will walk away or judge or reject, we allow a space for them to have a clear reflection of their own true nature, and step into the place of the sacred human with heart to heart communication. This final step is heart to heart communication  which catalyses the change between the humans and creates the opportunity for healing and connection.

From speaking and listening to some of my dying patients, and those that I have met through my work, what I know is that we all just want to be heard, truly listened to and to be told the truth, to have authentic heart to heart communication and connections.

Dying Matters


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