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Terminal illness: Supporting a terminally ill loved one

written by Vidya Sury April 19, 2010

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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.

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? Mary E. Johnson, a chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., shares some advice.

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.

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 though 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 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 may not happen that way.
Acceptance or accommodation may 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 may 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 may 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 may 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.

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 may be amazed at the stories your loved one has to share. Consider recording your conversations as a way of honoring the memory of your loved one.

Is it important to keep a vigil by my loved one when he or she is near death?

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.
While spending time with your loved one, remember to touch him or her. There’s nothing more reassuring than touch. You can massage lotion into your loved one’s hands or feet or simply rub his or her head. Talking about memories can also help affirm that your loved one’s life mattered and that he or she will be remembered.
Keep in mind, however, that keeping a vigil can be exhausting. 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, don’t expect that you’ll 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 may 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.

What do you tell people who are struggling with guilt?

After your loved one dies, you may 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.
Thank you, MayoClinic Staff.

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Stay healthy!
Vidya Sury

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