Terminal Illness: How to Talk About It

He’s the 90-year-old patriarch of a large family spread across the world. He’s sharp and witty, blood-transfusion dependent, and dying.

She’s been battling cancer for 3 years, her loved ones supporting her all the while. Her doctor just told here there’s nothing more he can do.

As a family they never really talked about the important things, and now death is staring them in the eye. What should they do?

It can be scary and sad when your loved one is given a terminal diagnosis. You may be in denial at first, but it’s important to face reality and talk about the diagnosis. In some cases the patient only has weeks to live, and you don’t want to live with regrets that you didn’t make the most of the time left. While it’s not healthy to ignore or push down your emotions, you may need to shelve them for a short time while you deal with the pressing issues. Here are some important things to talk about after the diagnosis:

1. Prognosis

Whether or not the patient is able to communicate, it’s important for everyone involved to understand the diagnosis. If the patient is still cognizant, they should be included in the discussion. Help them understand what is happening with their illness, and what the next few weeks or months will look like. Encourage them—and their involved loved ones—to ask questions and talk about their concerns.

Knowing how much time the patient has left is also helpful for the family. Loved ones who live far away can make travel plans and come to spend time with Dad while he’s still cognizant. The family can get together to make some memories before Grandma passes.

2. Emotions

Having a terminal illness in the family can make you feel powerless, out of control, or angry. Recognize these feelings in yourself and the other family members. Talking about the illness, the patient, and the future can help your family grow closer and overcome this challenge together. You can start the grieving process when you get the diagnosis, and doing it as a family can provide incredible support.

Some families aren’t used to talking about emotions openly. It can be difficult and scary to open up to others, even your loved ones, when you’re used to putting up a strong front. In such cases it’s even more important to talk about your feelings, so you don’t bury them and leave them to fester.

Another important aspect of emotions is unresolved stories. Don’t hesitate to tell your terminally ill loved one that you forgive them, and ask them for forgiveness in return. Tell them you love them, and thank them for the beautiful memories you’ve shared.

3. Finances

If the patient has any assets, such as a home, car, stock portfolio, or bank accounts, he needs to have a will. If he doesn’t have one yet, now is the time to write one. For more information, check out this old, but still relevant, article about estate planning and wills.

Talk to the patient about their will and where it’s

4. The Patient’s Wishes

Ask the patient what he wants from his loved ones. Does he want company or space? Is he strong enough to handle larger groups of visitors? Perhaps he wants to talk about his life story, and have his family record it.

You also need to talk about the patient’s end-of-life wishes. Does she want to pursue all available therapies, or does she want to continue treatment and go on hospice? Does she have an advanced directive for a time when she may no longer be able to communicate? It’s important to have these conversations early on, before the illness progresses past the point of communication.

Confronting terminal illness is one of the hardest things your family will ever face. Talking about your loved one’s death can be a scary process. But the consequence of not having these conversations when you have the opportunity is even worse. After you get the diagnosis, keep these four things in mind as you approach the following days and weeks. And of course, if you need any help, you can reach out to our excellent social workers at Regency Nursing for support and assistance.

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