Dealing With Grief following Death from a Terminal Illness

Grieving loss from a terminal illnessWith longer lives and advances in medical science, it is quite common for a loved one with a terminal diagnosis to live for an extended period of time. That means that a terminal illness death is more of a process than an occurrence. The process can encompass the entire family, including the person with the illness. In fact, grief may actually begin well before the actual death.

When the time actually comes, the feeling of helplessness that comes with being a caregiver may be replaced with one of guilt since there may also be a feeling a relief. At the same time, caregivers and families may feel empty with the daily challenges of caring for their loved ones. Remember, the person you are trying to help has been through a long and difficult process. This grief is complicated and the loved ones experiencing it need support and understanding.

Terminal Illness Death: What NOT to do…

  • Don’t stay away: Be available, loving, and non-judgemental. If the person who is grieving was the primary caregiver, he or she may be feeling particularly lost since their sense of purpose and structure is gone. You can help by spending time with them and providing a listening ear.
  • Don’t avoid talking about the deceased: Refer to the deceased by name, acknowledge their life, and encourage the grieving person to talk about their loved one.
  • Don’t bring up other people’s losses: Let friends and family focus on their loss.
  • Don’t say…
    • “I know just how you feel.”
    • “Stay busy to take your mind off things.”
    • “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
    • “At least he/she is no longer suffering.”

Terminal Illness Death: What to do…

  • Encourage the person to talk about the deceased: The person may want to share stories about their loved one, talk about the circumstances surrounding the death, and their plans for the future. Don’t press for details unless the person wants to discuss it but be there to listen.
  • Encourage the family to plan a memorial: If you are an appropriate person to do so, encourage the loved ones to plan a wake, funeral, or burial. By all means, assist with the arrangements if you are in a position to do so.
  • Help make arrangements or do chores: Offering assistance is good but is often declined. Instead, proactively take care of a chore such as lawn care, cooking, cleaning, or transportation. Offer assistance with children or pets.
  • Keep in touch: Many times, friends will disperse after the service and the bereaved may find themselves alone. Family, especially caregivers, will need to replace the emptiness with new activities. Be there for them when they are ready.
  • Send flowers with a note or offer a donation to an appropriate charity or research organization: Thoughtful acknowledgments are almost always appreciated. Below are samples of the types of sentiments you can include.
    • “He/She was such a fine person.”
    • “What you’re going through must be very difficult.”
    • “I’m saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.”
  • Find out about support groups: If you are in a position to do so, ask a support group leader to call the grieving parents to talk or pass along the contact information to the family.

The most important thing you can do to help a friend or loved one who is grieving the death of a someone who had a terminal illness is to be patient, available and understanding. Let them know that you are thinking of them and that you are there for them. If they call, answer, if they need time alone, respect that.

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