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11 Steps to Take When a Loved One is Terminally Ill

It’s hard when someone you love is going to die. But there are some steps you can take to help with the process to make the most of the situation for your loved one and your well-being as well. Here are a few approaches that just might make the experience a little bit easier.

Approach #1. Be there to just listen – Let your loved ones share their feelings and thoughts with you. You might not need to say anything or do anything in return. Try to listen without judging, asking questions, or giving advice unless it is wanted.

Approach #2. Find out what type of support and care is needed – While listening in an open, nonjudgmental way (Approach #1), you allow the person to be at ease in talking about what they want and need at this stage of their life. This is a good way that you can find out how you can offer support. Maybe they are undecided about their care or treatment and they want you to advocate for the care/ treatment they desire. Some may want you to reaffirm their decision so they can be more at peace over the end stages of their life. Others may want some advice or help in handling any number of practical matters.

Approach #3. Nurture the existing relationship – Be willing to spend time with your loved ones so they feel connected and loved. Know that in the final stages of a terminal illness, a person’s physical and mental abilities may very well change which undoubtedly can impact the dynamics of your relationship. Continue to be accepting of any changes to keep the relationship strong and to reassure your loved ones that you will be with them and that you love them.

Approach #4. Cope with your grief throughout the end time – Take care of yourself so you can give support to your friend or loved one who is terminally ill. Get plenty of sleep, eat a healthy diet, and remain physically active. At a time like this, it is common to experience a whole wide range of emotions from sadness and worry to guilt. If you are under too much stress or it is difficult for you to deal with the situation, seek out professional help with a trained therapist or counselor.

Approach #5. Show genuine care and compassion – Remember, that you might not need to say anything at all to your loved one (Approach #1). Your presence is often sufficient. But when you do speak, make sure you are cognizant of how you say things and provide your full attention toward them. Maintain consistent eye contact. Keep your body language relaxed and open as well so you don’t look to be overly aggressive or defensive. Choose your words wisely and deliver them in a loving tone. Maybe you could share a joyful memory or an interesting happening. Or maybe you can get the person to laugh with a joke or a funny experience. If you tell them about someone who is going/ has gone through a similar situation, it may come off as being too uncaring. Also, don’t blame your friend by implying the “illness” or situation that they are presently experiencing is caused by their choices or it is something that routinely happens in life (e.g., everyone must die some time; you know, you should have taken better care of yourself). Also, it’s important to remember that words of encouragement and hope are often needed but be realistic with what you say. Avoid conveying false hope in expressing the belief that a miracle can always happen (e.g., there are wonder drugs or you read about a therapy that reverses cancer to end-stage cancer patients, etc.).

Approach #6. Don’t offer solutions or intervene – Only act accordingly if it is necessary or if it is requested of you. Above all, remember that you need to respect your loved one’s plan(s) even if you may not agree. It is vital that you allow the terminally ill person to choose their final wishes. Only intervene if you see signs of self-neglect or elder abuse and if you notice certain responsibilities are not being addressed. For example, be wary of costly scams or misleading information for treatments or cures that promise unrealistic cures.

Approach #7. Ask what your loved one’s preferences are – Find a time to discuss your loved one’s end-of-life wishes. Some people want to pass away in private; others want family members present. Maybe your loved one wants you to contact certain people to ask them for a final visit or they may want to talk on the phone and share some final words. Be aware and accepting of the fact that your loved one may change their mind as the time gets closer. This is very common.

Approach #8. Communicate with family members – Also, be aware that communication is very important to eliminate misunderstandings at this crucial time. Play your role in helping eliminate heightened emotion and stress. If there are disagreements within the family, try to inform others that your loved one needs unity and you should all work together to provide the strength and support needed for everyone at this time. Often families have old wounds that must heal to move forward; this is the perfect time to do so. Try to include everyone in a necessary role to best navigate the grieving process and the practical matters that need to be handled. If this is too overwhelming for your family, consider hiring an outside party (e.g., family therapist, elder lawyer) to help out, and in return to reduce stress levels and to maintain family unity.

Approach #9. Accept the end stages of your loved one’s Earthly life – Don’t be afraid to take breaks from being with your loved one. Tell them you love them before leaving their side. Remind yourself that it is out of your control when their life comes to an end. If you are not present during the passing of your friend, don’t blame yourself; accept this as a natural part of living/ dying.

Approach #10. Provide space, comfort, and permission to “let go” – Despite your loved one’s state of being near the end of their life (e.g., being unconscious, appearing to be sleeping), they may still hear what you say and feel your presence (e.g., holding their hand, stroking their arm or cheek). Assure them that it is okay to let go of life and move on. Play their favorite music, recite a special prayer, talk calmly.

Approach #11. Find support for yourself when your loved one passes – Maybe you need to sit with your loved one a while, offer a final prayer, etc. When you are ready, you can notify the appropriate medical professional to confirm the death. If you need emotional support, ask for help from others (e.g., another friend or family member, a clergy member/ grief counselor/ or medical professional). You don’t need to do this alone.

In summary

Witnessing the final stages of a loved one’s life is difficult. There are some approaches that can help with the process: listening to your loved one, offering support and care, nurturing the relationship, taking care of your own needs, showing care and compassion, staying away from giving needless advice or being obtrusive, asking the person’s preferences, communicating with family members, accepting the end stages, providing the space/ comfort / and permission to let go, and finally, finding support when your loved one passes. Although the dying process of loved ones is inevitable, having certain ways to navigate your way through it all will hopefully be of value to you.




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