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When a Loved One is Terminally Ill

When a loved one develops a serious illness, it’s normal to go through an emotional experience akin to grieving. If the illness is terminal, it’s important to talk about death and plan for the end of life. These conversations can be difficult and very painful, but there are ways to make them easier for both you and your loved one.

Facing terminal illness

Time seems to freeze when you learn that someone you love has a life-threatening illness. Maybe you instinctively pushed the news away. Or perhaps you cried, or swung into action. No matter what happened that day, time and life go on after the diagnosis is made—regardless of whether you feel ready to cope.

You and your loved one may have pursued promising treatments and perhaps enjoyed a respite from encroaching illness. At some point, however, the illness may become terminal, and gradually the end draws closer. Once further treatments are unlikely to be successful, there is a great deal you can do to muster support for both of you.

Some of the support you need is emotional. The fears and feelings that surface now are better aired than ignored. Some of the support you need concerns practical details. End-of-life care needs to be arranged and funeral plans need to be considered. Legal and financial matters must be addressed now or in the days after the death. This article can help guide you through some of these steps and suggest additional sources of support for you to draw on.

Dealing with anticipatory grief

Often, people feel anticipatory grief when they know someone they care about is seriously ill. Anticipatory grief means grappling with and grieving a loss before it completely unfolds.

When someone has a serious illness, there are many losses to grieve long before the person becomes terminally ill—for the person who is dying as well as for their family and friends. Blows to independence and security, impaired abilities, and truncated visions of the future are just a few examples of the devastating losses many experience.

Just as with grief after a death, family and friends may feel a multitude of different emotions as they adjust to the new landscape of their lives. Typical emotions at this time include:

  • sorrow
  • anxiety
  • anger
  • acceptance
  • depression
  • denial

Depending on the type of illness and the relationship you share, you may feel closer and determined to make the time you have left count. Perhaps you are terribly anxious about what’s to come or so firmly focused on last-resort treatments that you continue to push away any thoughts of the end. Possibly you long for release or feel guilty and conflicted.

Although not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, all of these feelings are normal for those who do. You may find the following steps comforting:

  • Talk with sympathetic friends or family members, especially those who have weathered similar situations.
  • Join a support group online or in person.
  • Read books or listen to tapes designed for caregivers
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