How to Cope With Terminal Illness


A terminal diagnosis can either bring an immediate sense of shock and disbelief, or a desire to change your life entirely as you reshuffle your priorities. You may find the news difficult to digest at first, and you might crave more information, second opinions, or give up hope entirely as you go numb to the world around you. It is truly a life-changing announcement, and one that can trigger any number of emotions.

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Coping with these overwhelming thoughts and emotions gets easier as the news begins to sink in. The racing thoughts and feelings start to subside as more information becomes available to you. Regardless of where you are in the process of accepting your or your loved one’s diagnosis, the following tips will help you cope with this news.

Tips for Coping With Your Own Terminal Diagnoses

Coping with terminal illness is unique to each individual. Everyone’s emotional and psychological threshold is different, and no two people will experience receiving this news in the same way. 

The famed late psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, devised a five-stage measure for how people grieve and react to losses. Her linear model of the grief process set the standard for how we measure our reaction to grief and its trajectory toward healing.

The five stages of grief are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Not everyone may experience grief in such a linear or mechanical measure. You can expect your feelings and emotions to fluctuate, stabilize, or to come full-circle to when you first experienced your loss.

Here are some practical tips for coping with a terminal diagnosis and the issues that come up as your time draws near. 

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Get rest

You may feel restless and find it difficult to sleep when trying to cope with a terminal diagnosis. Sleep deprivation can lead to many other complications, such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.

Try some relaxation exercises or meditation breathing techniques to help you relax into sleep. If you find that these self-help measures are not working for you, talk to your medical provider to see what other options might be available. The better able you are to relax, the more soothing and restful sleep you’ll experience.

Allow time to process news of your condition

When you first receive your diagnosis, you may be feeling shocked, disbelief, and an indescribable numbness to the news. It can be both shocking and difficult to accept that there isn’t anything more that can be done and may take some time to sink in.

Take the time to process your terminal diagnosis privately and away from loved ones who may overwhelm you with their emotional reactions. You’ll need some time alone to plan for what’s ahead of you. You may want to let go of some of the things you planned on doing and prioritize others that you were leaving for later. 

Consider the following:

  • Getting your estate plan in order
  • Making gifts ahead of time
  • Saying your goodbyes
  • Crossing off your bucket list
  • Telling someone you love them

Expect to grieve

Receiving this type of news is not easy to digest, and you can expect a range of emotions following your diagnosis. It’s normal to feel sad, shock, and disbelief after you’ve had time to process the information given to you.

You’ll begin to grieve many things as the days turn into weeks. You’ll feel sad over the end of your life approaching, the missed opportunities with loved ones, and maybe not having enough time to accomplish your goals. Your loved ones will also begin to grieve in much the same way.

Expect for all of you to experience some form of anticipatory grief — grief in anticipation of what’s to come. Take the opportunity to live out your last days in the best way possible while never losing hope.

Plan a good death

One of the more common things those diagnosed with terminal illness wish for is to die a good death when the time comes. Dying a good death means planning and preparing for death, having all the necessary paperwork to ensure that all of your end-of-life wishes are met, and finding closure in your relationships.

Reconnecting with loved ones you’ve become estranged from and telling them that you love them becomes a priority — as well as finding forgiveness and forgiving yourself for any wrongs that may have hurt your relationship.

Some things to consider saying to your loved ones when death is approaching are the following:

  • I love you
  • I forgive you
  • Please forgive me
  • Thank you
  • Goodbye

These simple phrases can mean a lot to both you and the person hearing them. Forgiving others and forgiving yourself are two of the best ways of releasing any lingering resentments. When relationships are healed, everyone involved feels more peaceful when death approaches.

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Seek spiritual counseling

Spiritual support at the end of life helps you find meaning, purpose, and value in your life. It also allows you to understand what’s happening to you in a more spiritual or religious context and not just from a medical standpoint. 

Talking about spirituality and life after death brings you peace and gives hope that there’s more to this physical existence. Spiritual care at the end of life offers a more peaceful transition into death for both the dying and their loved ones. 

Talk to your loved ones about death

After your diagnosis, you may not feel like talking to anyone as the news begins to set in. It’s natural to want to withdraw as you sort through your feelings and emotions. When you’ve given yourself some time to process the information, come back out of your safety zone, and start talking about death with your loved ones.

Anticipate that your family and friends will be confused, hurt, and angry that your time together has been cut short. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about death and what you’re going through. By having these open and honest conversations, you’ll better understand each other and will be able to say goodbye instead of ignoring your condition, hoping it will all go away.

Tips for Coping With a Loved One’s Terminal Illness

When your loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, it will have an immediate impact on how you live your life and on your sense of identity. You’ll find that your life has changed as your focus shifts from your needs to theirs. 

Your personal time, your career, and relationships can take a backseat to caring for your loved one. You may feel bouts of guilt, shame, and resentment as you learn to let go of what was and accept things as they are now. 

The following are some tips to get you through and to find a new focus and meaning in life.

Be present

The greatest gift you can give to someone living on borrowed time is your physical presence. Even when you don’t know what to say to a dying loved one, sitting there quietly holding their hand can be both comforting and reassuring to them.

Your loved one may also be feeling lonely and afraid. Your presence provides comfort and emotional support in their greatest time of need.

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Understand their needs

A person that is dying has different needs and priorities than someone who’s expected to recover from illness. There are particular physical, emotional, and spiritual needs that a dying person has.

It’s okay to talk about these things with them to see how you can help make their transition go smoothly. If you don’t know how to start the conversation, you can begin by asking them what you can do for them. 

Celebrate their life

Whenever you hear bad news regarding someone’s health, it’s easy to focus on a terminal diagnosis’s negative aspects. It’s almost as if life as you knew it ceases to exist, and a new way of existing emerges. Your thoughts will race into overdrive, grief may set in, and you’ll forget that your loved one is still very much here with you.

Take this opportunity to celebrate the gift that their presence has been in your life. Consider giving unique gifts for terminal cancer patients or other terminal conditions to let your loved one know just how special they are to you. 

Get it all out

Time is limited and indeed “of the essence” in saying all the things you wished you would’ve said to someone who’s dying.  Saying goodbye to a dying friend is one of the hardest things to experience in your lifetime.

Make every moment with them count. Sit and talk with them about all the things that have been on your mind throughout the years. Take the time to find out what’s on their mind and if they have anything they wish to express before dying. Talking is a form of therapy that can help draw you closer together during their final days. 

Offer assistance

A person who’s dying may need support in other ways than those above. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the most basic needs in getting things together in preparation for death. Ask your friend or loved one where it is that they need the most help.

Do they need help sorting through their personal possessions, organizing their legal paperwork, or taking care of financial matters? 

Coping With a Terminal Illness is Difficult, but Possible

When your loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, you can expect new challenges and concerns to follow. And the same goes for you. The entire family dynamic will shift, and priorities will change seemingly from one day to the next. Try and focus on one day at a time to get you through the most difficult times. 

If you're looking for more on helping someone through a terminal illness, read our articles on what to write in a card to someone with terminal cancer and quotes about terminal illness.

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