Death is a hard topic for all of us.
It’s difficult to know what to say when somebody loses a person close to them and how to talk about death in general.
But another situation that’s rarely discussed but really, really tricky to figure out is what to say to someone who almost died.
“Glad you’re still here, bro!” or “Hey girl, nice to have you back in the land of the living,” are not what you should say.
Here’s a guide with some better tips on what to say to someone who almost died.
Key lessons on speaking to someone who almost died
1) Be normal
If you want to know what to say to someone who almost died, put yourself in their shoes.
What would you want someone to say to you if you had almost died?
I’m guessing that 99% of you would say you wish they would just be normal.
No over the top hugging and screams of joy when you see them;
No weird five-page emails about how you prayed for them every day and are so glad they lived because it was God’s will;
No “out on the town” party time ideas with strippers and alcohol to “celebrate”.
They almost died for Pete’s sake. Tell them you’re so glad they’re here with you and that they’re an amazing friend, relative, or person!
Keep it real. Keep it normal.
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2) Give them space to process their experience
Sometimes the best choice about what to say to someone who almost died is to say nothing.
Give them a little bit of breathing room and just quietly let them know you’re there for them and not demanding any big “comeback” or sudden return to normal.
Having a close brush with your mortality can really shake you and those who’ve come close to the edge know what I’m talking about.
The shaman Rudá Iandê expresses this really well in his article “What’s the point of life when it can be so easily taken away?” where he observes that:
“Death, disease, and disgrace look banal when displayed on media or movies, but if you’ve seen it from close, you were probably shaken at your very foundation.”
Death is not some casual topic or a joke. It’s not banal with bad guys getting mowed down like it is in action movies.
Death is harsh and real.
2) Don’t pretend nothing happened — that’s just weird
Something that people sometimes do with a friend or loved one who almost died is act like nothing happened.
“Oh, hey man! How’s your day,” they say awkwardly as uncle Harry emerges from a two-year coma or their close friend gets discharged from the hospital after a near-fatal accident.
Please don’t do this. It’s really odd and it will make the survivor feel creeped out and strange.
Start by giving them a real hug and holding their hand.
Send some loving words and energy their way and let them know you’re so glad to see them and that what happened scared the hell out of you but you’re so glad they’re still around.
Surviving a close call with death changes someone. You can’t just flip the channel back to normal like nothing ever happened.
3) Express your love for them but don’t be performative
When I talk about showing some love and telling somebody who almost died how much they mean to you, I’m talking about doing whatever comes naturally.
Whether the person in question was struggling with a life-threatening illness, a suicide attempt, an accident, or even a violent incident or combat situation, they’re already thankful to be alive.
If you feel moved to be outwardly emotional then by all means do so.
If you’re a quieter person who just wants to say that you’re so glad they’re OK now and you can’t wait to spend time together again soon, then do that.
There isn’t really a “right” way to talk to someone who almost died, except to be sure you’re doing what you really feel called to do, not what you “think” you should do or what seems cool.
For example, depending on who is the survivor in question, sometimes humor can be appropriate.
Maybe you want to check them out of the cancer ward and head to a ridiculous set of stand-up comedy. Laughter is powerful.
4) Connect to their spiritual or religious beliefs, but don’t preach
If you’re wondering what to say to someone who almost died, referencing their spiritual or religious beliefs can be a very helpful thing to do.
Even if you’re not a real “believer” in whatever they do hold to, do your best to respectfully and earnestly give some credit to that faith which helped pull them through.
The one thing you should not do is preach.
If your friend or loved one is very conventionally religious it is absolutely fine to refer to Bible verses, the Qur’an, other scriptures, or whatever is related to their faith.
But do not ever preach at someone about how their survival “shows” or proves some theological or spiritual point. This includes not pushing an atheistic or “well, just goes to show it’s a crazy world and there’s no real meaning behind it,” type lines.
Come on, man.
If they believe in a spiritual or non-spiritual interpretation of their experience they will share that with you if they wish.
It is not your place to interpret someone’s brush with death or tell them its supposed cosmic significance and how it proves some belief right or wrong.
5) Talk with them about their passions and interests they get to do again
It may sound lame but one of the best things about not being dead is getting to do things you love and try out new things you might love.
If you are wondering what to say to someone who almost died, try talking to them about their interests and passions.
Bring up activities, hobbies, topics, and news that will excite their interest and enthusiasm.
If they’ve suffered a bad physical injury that will prevent them from playing sports they like or other activities maybe hold back for now.
But in general don’t be afraid to bring up something you know they love, even if it’s just their favorite Burger King burger. We all need to indulge every now and then!
6) Focus on practical things and issues, not cosmic questions
One of the best things to say to someone who was on the brink of death is to bring up practical and ordinary life subjects.
Like I said, you don’t want to bypass the awkward issue of mortality, so bring that up first and reconnect on a fundamental level. But after that, sometimes the best thing to do is sidetrack into normal topics.
What are they going to do about their house?
Did they hear about the amazing new Chinese restaurant that opened up downtown?
“How about the Steelers?”
And if all else fails, go for the canine option:
Are they excited to see their doggo again? Because that cute bugger is sure going to be pumped to see them!
This will bring a smile to even the most traumatized individual.
7) Show them you appreciate them instead of just telling them
When someone almost dies is often the time that we realize how much they actually meant to us.
Holy shit, that person who I thought was just an average friend was actually a deeply important part of my life and I care about them so, so much.
I can’t believe I never thought before about how goddamn much I love my brother.
And so forth…
Let it out and tell them from the heart. But even more than that, think about what you can do to show this person how much they mean to you not just tell them.
Did you pay for repairs to their vehicle? Repaint their home? Set up a new gaming station where they can find out what new releases came out for Playstation this year? Buy them a ticket to a beach for a week with their husband or wife?
Just some ideas…
8) Talk about the future with them, not the past
I don’t know your history with this person but I do know that when someone close to us almost passes away it is very, very upsetting.
It’s normal that you’re going to want to chat with them about past memories — and this is good, especially joyful times — but in general, I really recommend talking about the future.
Hope can go a hell of a long way in life and talking about the future is a way of including this individual back into the dance of life.
Their race is not yet run, they’re still in this crazy-ass marathon with all the rest of us.
Include them in that conversation. Talk future plans (with no pressure) and muse over some dreams you have or dreams they may have.
They’re alive! This is a great day.
9) Offer to help out in any way you can
Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.
In many cases, the best option of what to say to someone who almost died is to ask how you can help. Life has all sorts of practical difficulties and tasks.
If possible, do your best to anticipate the help that this person might need.
Is this person checking out of the hospital in two days and heading back home where they live alone?
Bring over some freshly-made lasagna when they get home or give them a ride or help with their wheelchair.
Small things can make an enormous difference in creating that feeling of care and solidarity.
You’re not doing anything out of duty or because you “should.” You’re doing it because you can and because you truly want to help.
In the end, it’s not even primarily about what you say, or even just what you do, it’s why you do it, and the loving feeling you send this person’s way and surround them with.
Remember the wise words of Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”