Terminal illness: Supporting a terminally ill loved one
When terminal illness affects a loved one, it isn't always easy to know how to react. Find out how to offer support and deal with grief.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Knowing how to offer comfort and support to a loved one who has a terminal illness can be challenging. What can you say or do? How can you help your loved one cope? How will you deal with your own grief? Get the facts about supporting a loved one who is terminally ill.
My loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. How might our relationship change?
Your relationship with your loved one might not necessarily change because he or she has a terminal illness. If you're concerned, try to build on your relationship's strengths. It's also important to be open to new possibilities. A loved one's terminal diagnosis might improve your relationship. Or unresolved conflicts might present new challenges.
Remember that your loved one is still the same person and will still have the same needs and desires as he or she had before the terminal illness. Many people facing terminal illness want to be treated as normally as possible, without always focusing on the illness.
How can I help my loved one cope with a terminal illness?
Let your loved one know that you're willing to listen to his or her concerns — and never underestimate the value of your presence. Even if it feels as if you're not doing anything, your presence sends an important message. Don't, however, try to be a counselor.
Is there a typical emotional process that a person who has a terminal illness experiences?
Dying isn't a science. Don't assume that a loved one who has a terminal illness is going to go through a methodical process of coming to terms with death. It might not happen that way.
Acceptance or accommodation might be the most desirable outcome of the grieving process — learning to live as fully as possible while accepting the presence of a terminal illness.
But does your loved one have to accept that he or she has a terminal illness? Does your loved one have to accept that he or she is going to die before he or she expected? No. There's no right or wrong way to come to terms with death.
How do you help a loved one who's in denial about his or her impending death?
Denial is an important coping mechanism. Your loved one might be in denial because reality is too frightening, too overwhelming, or too much of a threat to his or her sense of control. Denial is a form of natural protection that can allow your loved one to let reality in bit by bit and continue living as he or she contemplates death.
As long as denial isn't causing your loved one significant harm — such as causing him or her to seek out painful treatments of no therapeutic value — then denial isn't necessarily bad.
Your loved one might be afraid of pain. Perhaps your loved one is afraid of losing control of his or her bodily functions, mind or autonomy. Your loved one might also fear failing family or becoming a burden to others.
To provide emotional and spiritual support to your loved one, invite him or her to talk about his or her fears. Sometimes, however, it's easier for a dying person to share what he or she fears and explore it with someone other than a family member, such as a spiritual counselor.
When is denial harmful?
If denial is interfering with a dying person's necessary tasks or plans, you might need to take action.
If, for example, a single parent's denial of his or her illness is stopping him or her from planning future care for a child, then it might be necessary to intervene. This can be most effectively handled by a professional who has expertise in the care of the dying. Examples of professionals in this area include hospice, palliative care nurses, physicians and social workers.
Clergy may also be of great help if religion is important to the patient.
Sept. 09, 2015
See more In-depth
- End of life care: Helping with comfort and care. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/end-life-helping-comfort-`and-care/introduction. Accessed Aug. 14, 2015.
- End-of-life choices: Holding on and letting go. Family Caregiver Alliance. https://caregiver.org/advanced-illness-holding-on-letting-go. Accessed Aug. 14, 2015.
- Grief and loss. Family Caregiver Alliance. https://caregiver.org/grief-and-loss. Accessed Aug. 14, 2015.
- Rosenblatt L, et al. Psychosocial issues in advanced illness. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 14, 2015.
- Comfort care. Family Caregiver Alliance. http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3333. Accessed Aug. 14, 2015.
- Offering spiritual support for family and friends. Family Caregiver Alliance. http://www.caringinfo.org/files/public/brochures/faith_brochure.pdf
- Baily FA, et al. Palliative care: The last hours and days of life. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 14, 2015.
- Keall RM, et al. Therapeutic life review in palliative care: A systematic review of quantitative evaluations. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 2015;49:747.
- Stern TA, et al. Psychiatric and ethical aspects of care at the end of life. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders, Elsevier; 2016.
- Moynihan TJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 15, 2015.
- Takahashi PY (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 19, 2015.
- Rohren CH (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 17, 2015.