Coping with grief when a loved one is terminally ill

BY Lianna Champ

22nd Feb 2023 Wellbeing

Coping with grief when a loved one is terminally ill

If a loved one is terminally ill, you may experience anticipatory grief, which has its own particular challenges. Grief expert Lianna Champ shares how to cope

When the diagnosis of a terminal illness comes through, you must allow yourselves to feel the shock and take time to let it sink in.

A terminal diagnosis brings its own tangled mess of emotions and fear and, as a partner who is supporting someone, you may feel that it is important to be strong for them and put your own grief to the side.

"There is nothing predictable about learning a loved one is terminal"

But one thing I have learned through all my grief work, is the importance of sharing your feelings right from the outset and without censor. Some people may feel guilty by focusing on themselves but you have to nurture and care for you so you can nurture and care for your loved one.

Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up. Your reaction may be completely out of character or frighten you, but there is nothing predictable about learning a loved one is terminal. You have to go through this to take you to a place where you can find a sense of balance.

Be with people who make you feel "normal"

Friend offers support to woman grieving loved one's terminal illnessMake sure you have a support network to lean on while you are grieving

It is so important that you have someone who can be your sounding board and hold you up when it all gets too much. Someone who will let you talk and give you gentle nudges in the right direction.

People can sometimes be very quick to know exactly what you should do, but each situation is totally unique, and you will know. Learn to trust your initial instincts and trust yourself and don’t be afraid to say what it is that you need.

Fresh air and exercise

There is nothing better to soothe and clear your head than a walk in nature. Try to take a daily walk or at least every other day. The rhythm of your footfall and the fresh air can be better than medicine.

If you have a dog that’s even better. Animals are quite magical when words fail us and our feelings are overwhelming. Just cuddling them and stroking them can bring a feeling of connection deep within.

Learn to let go

Experiencing a terminal illness isn’t just about attending to the physical needs of you and your loved one. It's also about making a spiritual connection, not only with each other but with the universe. Illness is not personal. It happens.

You will rail against the unfairness of it, but coming to the realisation that you have no choice will open you spiritually as you look for an inner strength.

"Illness is not personal. It happens"

Sometimes it is in the most adverse and challenging times of our lives that we have our greatest opportunities for learning, and through these experiences, we can actually become better people. Our appreciation of love and life deepens and gains more value.

Plan for the future

Woman with terminal illness helping to plan futureInvolve your loved one in plans for after they pass away to feel connected with them in the future

I was in the very privileged and special position of supporting a very close and lovely friend through his terminal illness over three years and, of course, our conversations turned to what he wanted at the end of his life, not just in his treatment plan but also afterwards for his funeral.

We took baby steps at first as verbalising the end of his life was a huge hurdle for us both. It just wasn’t fair but, once we started, it became easier, less scary. There was an openness which was refreshing in its honesty.

We both crashed occasionally, but using words like "death", "dying", "living" and "life" became easier. 

We let the humour in too and it helped. A lot. It didn’t lessen the seriousness of the situation, but what it did was soothe and help keep a sense of normalcy for us through this unfamiliar territory. As the reality sank in, the humour assisted our acceptance.

"By carrying out his requests, it creates a spiritual connection with him"

Also being at home meant he was unhindered by the barriers of hospital procedures, enabling more spontaneous conversations. The hospices also create a very easy, homelike environment.

He told me, “Everybody needs this—it’s great. I feel like I will continue even after I’m gone. Like, I don’t just stop”. That was the beauty of having our honest and open conversations and it gave me strength too for afterwards.

Talking about the things that would happen after his death helped tremendously and he felt included in events that were happening after he had gone.

He was also able to make requests of his family—things that he wanted them to continue or to start for the first time.

It helped to give each of them something solid to hold onto afterwards which brought them great comfort knowing that they were doing something that he asked of them. By carrying out his requests, it creates a spiritual connection with him.

There is no right or wrong and we just have to find what works for us—hopefully some of this article will help you.

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience as a grief and funeral care specialist and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ

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