September 6, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Coping with a Loved One's Terminal Illness

How to support someone who is dying, while also taking care of yourself

Coping with a Loved One's Terminal Illness
Finding out your loved one is dying is like losing a part of yourself. How can you cope, while also supporting them through their final days? (Shutterstock)

There are very few moments more gut-wrenching than finding out your loved one has a terminal illness. It's never easy to hear. When a friend or family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a prognosis, their health issues may suddenly make sense—but everything else becomes impossible to understand. 

While many serious illnesses are curable, a terminal illness is one that is expected to result in death. For some, the prognosis will give the dying person time to enjoy their final months or years on earth, but for others death may come sooner rather than later. 

Anticipatory grief

Usually grief follows a loss. But anticipatory grief is when grief comes before death. This may happen in the case of terminal illness, or a serious accident, when death is known to be near. Sometimes knowing that death is coming can be just as bad as a quick death. Watching a loved one slowly deteriorate is torture. Some people who take care of their loved one for years prior to death actually find they are relieved when the time finally comes. 


Though Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' model of the Five Stages of Grief is widely understood to be an unreliable way to process grief, denial is one of the surest reactions most people have to news of a terminal illness. Particularly when no previous health issues were noticed, you might have a difficult time even comprehending the diagnosis. This is shock and denial—common reactions that most people have when confronted with tragic news.

Those who are first hearing of a bad prognosis often deflect the full weight of what is being said to them by asking if anything can be done to heal the dying person, and what the "next steps" are. 

Supporting a loved one who is dying

When someone you care about is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the best you can do for them is to treat them exactly the same and give them the support they need. However, it's important not to bury your own feelings around the diagnosis. 

Here's what you can do to help yourself cope with a loved one's terminal illness diagnosis:

  • Don't make their last moments about your grief

If someone close to you is dying, it is natural to grieve. Knowing that someone you loved will no longer be around is confusing, incomprehensible and heart-wrenching. But your grief is also complicated by the fact that you need to hold it together and support the dying person during this time. 

There is a time and a place to lose it. You should take the time to express yourself fully, but consider the deceased person first. When someone is terminally ill, the goal is not to cure them. Your aim should be to ensure their final moments on earth are pain-free, supportive and loving. 

Do not use your dying loved one as your support person during this time. Support your loved one, and reserve your most painful thoughts and feelings for those who are around to support you.

  • Be there for your loved one

Something that will help both you and your loved one cope with their diagnosis is to just be there for them. When someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, they feel very isolated. However, when they have the support of their loved ones—even if that support just looks like a friend sitting with them in silence—they will feel much better. If you avoid your loved one because you don't know what to do or say, you will only hurt yourself and your loved one in the long run.

It's okay to express yourself to your dying loved one, but this is one of those unfortunate times when supporting someone else trumps your emotional pain. If they are able to tell you, find out their wishes.

  • Is there anything they'd like to do before they die?

  • Do they want to talk openly about death, or keep things as "normal" as possible?

  • What are their wishes for final care?

  • Do they have their affairs in order and a legal will created? 

These are some of the most important things to figure out if someone close to you is dying. Depending on their condition, you may be able to help them prepare for their death in a way that makes it easier for them. 

Find out if your loved one has a bucket list, and help them accomplish the things that are possible. Make their comfort your priority—you'll have your own time to grieve privately. (Shutterstock)

  • Don't be afraid to laugh

Though your loved one is dying, they are still alive. Whether or not they are able to consciously interact with you, tell them jokes, share your day with them and tell them you love them. Be lighthearted and kind. Distract them from thoughts of death, and try to keep their spirits up. 

  • Be kind to yourself

When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, some people feel guilty or blame themselves. Maybe you haven't spent as much time with them as you think you should have and now you feel like it's too late. Or perhaps you two had been arguing recently and not speaking. Whatever the reason for your negative feelings, nothing good can come of blaming yourself or feeling guilty. All that will do is make it harder for you to cope with their diagnosis and the results. You may still have time to make positive memories before they pass away.

  • Get help

This is something that you shouldn't go through alone. Even though you're not the one with the diagnosis, your loved one's terminal illness affects you, too. Bottling up your thoughts and feelings will not help you grieve. There are many different options for speaking to someone about a loved one's diagnosis. Two of the most helpful suggestions are seeking out a qualified grief counselor, or finding a support group. A professional will be able to guide you through your feelings, while a support group is able to identify with your situation.

A final word

When a loved one gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, the news impacts everyone. Even though the loss has not yet occurred, everyone is grieving—including the dying person. While supporting your loved one is crucial, so is supporting yourself. If you don't find a way to cope with a loved one's terminal illness diagnosis, you could end up hurting both yourself and your loved one. Remember to be responsible for your own care while supporting your loved one through their final days. 

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