How do people cope when they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness? Many struggle with how their impending death will impact their loved ones or how they will use their remaining time. Death and dying experts report that talking with someone else who has a terminal illness can be very helpful in any stage of illness.1 A therapist can also help guide the patient and their family through grief.
How You Might Feel When Dealing With Terminal Illness
When trying to cope with a terminal illness, whether you’re sick or someone you love is sick, a flood of emotions will arise, including denial, helplessness, frustration, and fear. Even with the support of health practitioners, family, and friends, you may still feel alone.
Emotions you may feel if coping with terminal illness include:2
Many people are aware of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her work around the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief experts agree these stages occur for many who are facing death, but people also experience grief in different ways and in no specific order. One person may experience one stage longer or shorter than another. Some may not experience all five stages.3
13 Tips for Coping With Terminal Illness
If you’re facing a terminal illness, you are not alone. In addition to family and friends, there are healthcare professionals who will offer ongoing treatment and support. Hospice staff are also available to comfort and support both patients and their loved ones. They are there to help you understand your diagnosis and prepare for whatever comes next.
Here are thirteen tips for how to cope with a terminal illness:
1. Decide Who to Tell
Communication is key. Tell people about your diagnosis who you can talk candidly with about your thoughts and feelings. Let them know what you need and discuss what quality of life means to you. Give them a chance to share their feelings as well. Don’t let things you want to say go unsaid. If you aren’t comfortable talking, write things down in a journal or letters designated for specific individuals.
2. Choose an Advanced Care Directive
If you have wishes regarding specific healthcare interventions like ventilators or feeding tubes, make sure your wishes are understood and honored by the person you appoint as your health care proxy. Consult an attorney to ensure the proper legal documents are in place such as a living will, durable power of attorney for healthcare, or health care proxy.
3. If Able, Consider What Type of Funeral/Memorial Service You Want
A terminal illness makes people feel like they have lost control over all aspects of their lives. Thinking about and planning for your funeral/memorial service is a way of gaining some control. If there is not a family member who is comfortable having this discussion, find a friend or a member of your place of worship you can talk to about it.
4. Engage With Palliative Care
Palliative care experts in a study looked at the importance of hope for patients, family members, and physicians while confronting terminal illness. They concluded that attributes of hope focus initially on cure, then shift to prolonged survival, and then to improving quality of life. As the illness advances, this hope might also evolve into a form of acceptance.4
5. Consult a Therapist With Expertise In Death, Dying, & Grief Counseling
This can be enormously helpful for the person who is diagnosed as well as for loved ones and family members. To find a therapist or counsellor who is the right match, use an online therapist directory and search for a mental health professional based on location, price, experience, and more.
6. Reflect on Life & What You Want From the Time You Have
Ask yourself: What can enhance your quality of life? Who do you want to spend time with and how do you want to spend it? These are fundamental questions to ask. Try to spend the time you have left according to your answers.
7. Establish a Support Team for Patient & Family
Identify what needs to be done and who is available to help. If you’re a friend or family member, you might help with tasks like grocery shopping, laundry, taking kids to and from school, and encouraging the patient to practice self-care.
Caring Bridge can help communicate the patient’s condition and what they or their family need. Designate a trusted person to keep these updates so you won’t have to field unnecessary calls or visitors.
8. Acknowledge Grief & Fear
Note that patients with life threatening illnesses experience a series of losses as the illness progresses. Grief in the face of these losses is natural and should be acknowledged and expressed.5 Most patients will also benefit if they can feel secure enough to share their fears, too.
9. Decide What You Want to Tell Your Children
It’s important to share age appropriate information with children. Grief experts recommend carefully sequenced information about the illness, treatment, and death. Try to integrate relatively concrete and detailed information about the illness without becoming overwhelmed and confused.6
10. Say Goodbye in Your Own Way & Time
How you say goodbye isn’t as important as making sure you say it. It doesn’t have to be in words either; communicate your feelings in whatever way feels right to you and only when you’re ready.
11. Treat the Person With Terminal Illness as Normally as Possible
When possible, try to give them (or yourself) a sense of normalcy and control over daily events
12. Denial Isn’t Necessarily Bad
Denial is a way of coping. It’s understandable given the severity and reality of a terminal diagnosis. Mayo Clinic suggests, “As long as denial isn’t causing significant harm, such as causing the person to seek out painful treatments of no therapeutic value, then it isn’t necessarily bad.”7
13. Gather as Much Information as You Can About the Diagnosis
Talk to your doctor and other related healthcare practitioners to find out what you can expect in terms of the progression of your illness, treatment, and how it will impact your functionality. This knowledge can help you and your family prepare for what will come in the days ahead.
How Therapy Can Help
A therapist can help the patient process and understand the wave of emotional turmoil that stems from a terminal diagnosis. They can help them cope with grief and communicate their feelings as well as facilitate communication between the patient and their loved ones. Another therapeutic goal is to help patients prioritize their goals and wishes.
Family members can benefit from therapy, too. They need to be able to process their anticipatory grief and express feelings they may be reluctant to share with the loved one who is ill. They also need help coping with the painful reality of the impending death of a loved one and what that means for them, their family, and their future.
Finally, they will need grief counseling and support after a loved one has died. As they begin to process the enormity of the loss, they may experience survivor’s guilt or other complex emotions related to death, dying, grief, and loss. Find a therapist with expertise in grief and loss on an online therapist directory.
Final Thoughts on Coping With Terminal Illness
People experience impending death and the loss of a loved one in their own way, although universal emotions like helplessness, fear, anxiety, and anger often emerge. The more medical, psychological, and family/friend support that the person diagnosed and their loved ones have, the more tools they will have available to cope with what lies ahead.
For Further Reading
There are many resources available for patients who are given a terminal diagnosis and their friends/family members.Here are a few to investigate: