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.
What else can I do for my loved one?
You can encourage your loved one to talk about his or her life. For instance, ask your loved one to talk about how he or she met his or her mate. You might be amazed at the stories your loved one has to share.
Talking about memories can also help affirm that your loved one's life mattered and that he or she will be remembered. Consider recording your conversations as a way of honoring the memory of your loved one.
Keep in mind that your loved one is still the same person he or she was before becoming ill. Your loved one will likely still have the same needs, desires and interests.
Is it important to keep a vigil by my loved one when he or she is near death?
Start by asking your loved one what he or she would want. Most people wish to die with family nearby, but others might prefer to go privately. Let the dying person be your guide.
Keeping a vigil by your loved one before his or her death can be a sacred experience. Sitting by your loved one's side — even if you feel helpless or powerless — can give your loved one both strength and comfort.
Keeping a vigil can also help you ensure that your loved one's pain and symptoms are addressed and that he or she has access to spiritual resources.
Remember, however, that keeping a vigil can be exhausting. Constant, physical presence is not required as part of being loving and supportive. If you choose to keep a vigil, be sure to take breaks, drink plenty of fluids, eat balanced meals and accept support from others.
Also, understand that you might not be at your loved one's side when he or she dies. The timing of your loved one's death is beyond your control.
Is it appropriate to tell your loved one that it's all right to let go?
Sometimes it might appear that your loved one is having trouble letting go. If you think your loved one is hanging on for your sake, it's OK to say that you'll be all right and that he or she can let go.
What advice do you have for people who are grieving?
Grief is a natural response to loving and feeling loss that often comes in waves. Emotions can sometimes feel overwhelming, making even simple tasks difficult. This is normal. It doesn't mean that you won't be able to function for the rest of your life.
Right now you need to grieve. Keep in mind that grief doesn't necessarily begin when your loved one dies. The grieving process can begin as your loved one's illness progresses or normal roles change.
If you're concerned that you're unable to stop grieving and it's affecting your ability to function, consider seeking professional help. Hospice or palliative care experts can be a great resource.
What do you tell people who are struggling with guilt?
After your loved one dies, you might question whether you did enough or said the right things. Guilt is a normal part of grieving. Often, we come to peace and guilt gradually fades. If you're having trouble dealing with guilt, consider talking to someone who can help you work through your feelings.
Sept. 09, 2015
See more In-depth
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