Learning that a member of your family has a terminal illness is often the most devastating news a family can receive. Your family is starting a journey they didn’t ask for and don’t want – with hospital visits, hospice care, grief, sorrow, and tears. But it doesn’t have to only be rainy days! You can create beautiful memories to cherish and turn your love and concern into positive actions. Together, let’s discuss ways you can help your family process what’s happening and grieve well together.

Father and son sitting outside looking at lake

1. Take Time to Accept What’s Happened

It’s going to take time to cope with your family’s new reality. Before the diagnosis, you may have thought this type of thing only happens to other families, and it’s hard to grasp that it’s now happening to yours. If the onset of the terminal illness was sudden or unexpected, you and the rest of your family will likely feel shock and numbness at first. This is a natural and necessary response to painful news.

Don’t try to take it all in at once. Accept your new reality in doses or increments. First, try to understand it in your head. Then, over the weeks and even months to come, you will come to understand it with your heart. Just take it one day at a time.

Mother comforting daughter, sitting on couch

2. Be Aware of Your Family’s Coping Style

How you and your family respond to this terminal illness will have a lot to do with how you as a family have related in the past. If your family is used to openly talking about their feelings with each other, they will probably be able to communicate more easily about the illness and the changes it brings. Families where people don’t talk about feelings and tend to deal with problems individually will probably have difficulty acknowledging the illness and its impact.

As you have conversations, you will find that some family members want to discuss the terminal illness, while others seem to want to deny the reality and refuse to discuss it. Right now, your family may feel like a pressure cooker: you all have a high need to feel understood, but little capacity to be understanding. Try not to force anything and give each family member room to come to grips with reality in their own way.

Little girl cutting vegetables in the kitchen with mother

3. Adjust to Changing Roles

A family member’s terminal illness is going to necessitate changes – in routine, in roles and responsibilities, activities, and more. Your family may have a hard time adjusting to the changing roles. For example, if the head of the household is dying, the other spouse may now have to find a job in addition to caring for the home and children. If grandma acted as the family’s binding force before she was ill, her family may now feel confused and disjointed where they once felt strong and cohesive.

These changes can cause upheaval and high emotions, affecting how your family interacts. Depending on temperament and age, some may act short-tempered, overly dependent, or stoic, to name a few options for altered behavior. Each person’s stress, anxiety, or fear will manifest in different ways, so be on the lookout for it. Try not to take any outbursts personally.

Home health nurse checking older man's heartbeat with stethoscope

4. Consider Getting Outside Help

One of the most compassionate things you can do for your family during this stressful time is to reach out for and accept help. If someone in your family is caring for the dying person at home, look into end-of-life care options. Have groceries delivered. Hire a housekeeper to come in twice a month. Talk to your church or other community organizations and ask for volunteers to help. And family counseling can be a healing, enriching experience that helps family members understand one another now and long after the illness.

Additionally, hospices are well-staffed and trained to help both the dying person and the dying person’s family. Their mission is two-fold: 1) to help the dying die with comfort, dignity, and love, and 2) to help survivors cope both before and after the death. Contact your local hospice early in the dying process. Too often families wait until the last few days of the sick person’s life to ask for hospice care. When contacted early, hospices can provide a great deal of compassionate support and care up to six months before the death.

Husband sitting next to wife in hospital bed

5. Understand What the Dying Person May be Feeling

Experiencing terminal illness affects a person’s mind, heart, and spirit. While you don’t want to make assumptions about what another person may feel, do be aware that terminally ill people may experience a variety of emotions. Fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness, and loneliness are just a few of the emotions they may feel—one at a time or simultaneously.

These feelings are a natural response to terminal illness. Your role as caring family member should be to listen to the sick person’s thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. If they are sad, they’re sad. Don’t try to take that necessary emotion away. If they are angry or feeling guilty, that’s okay too. You may be tempted to soothe away or deny these painful feelings, but a more helpful response is to simply acknowledge them. Listen and understand.

Woman sleeping peacefully in bed

6. Help Family Members Tend to their Own Needs

When a family member is dying, that person becomes the focal point for the entire family. Suddenly everyone is concerned about that one person and their coming death. This is normal, but family members should not lose sight of their own needs during this difficult time.

Encourage everyone to nurture themselves as well as the sick person. Get enough rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten schedules as much as possible. And even though the family is experiencing a serious time, they should still give themselves permission to be happy. Plan fun events. Allow time to laugh, love, and enjoy life.

Group of people holding hands in prayer

7. Embrace Your Spirituality

If faith is part of your family’s life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Singly or together, you may find comfort and hope in reading spiritual texts, attending religious services, or praying. Allow yourselves to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If one or more family members are angry at God because of the illness, realize that this is a normal and natural response. Try not to be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings each family member needs to explore.

8. Seek Hope and Healing

When a family member dies, each surviving member of the family must find a way to mourn if they are to love and live wholly again. It’s impossible to heal if you aren’t willing to openly express grief. Denying your grief, before and after the death, will only make it more confusing and overwhelming.

Mother and young son paying respects at a cemetery

Remember, every family member will grieve in a different way. Leave room for different expressions of grief. Some will feel sad, others angry, guilty, or even relieved. Don’t judge the reactions of the other people in your family – simply realize that each of you will face the pain differently. Look for ways to honor and remember the person you’ve lost. These healing actions will help you find a way to move forward.

Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Grief is a process, not an event. Encourage your family to be patient with each other and kind to themselves. Your life as a family has changed forever, and it will take time, open sharing, and intentionality to discover the way forward.

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