Tips for Supporting a Person with a Terminal Diagnosis
Understandably, a person’s mental health can be deeply impacted when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness and a complex combination of emotions may follow. Though this can be a complicated situation, there are ways in which caregivers can support the mental health of someone with a terminal illness.
When offering support to a loved one with this kind of diagnosis, some reactions and responses may be more appropriate than others. “You don’t have to focus on their illness,” says Becky Hudzik, Statewide Director of Clinical Services at Centerstone. “Ask them what they want,” she adds. Many people may just want to talk, whether it be about their past, their current situation, or their thoughts on dying. “Just listening may be all they need from you,” Hudzik explains.
When talking with someone who has a terminal illness, using the correct language is crucial. Asking ‘how are you’ may be too much for that person to navigate. Instead, Hudzik suggests saying things like ‘I am here for you’, ‘I am here with you’, or ‘I am thankful to be here with you’. These phrases offer support without pressure to feel one way or another. Avoid saying things along the lines of ‘it is going to be okay’, ‘this is God’s will’, and ‘you will be in a better place.’
While trying to navigate their recent diagnosis, the person will likely have a range of thoughts and feelings. Listening to them and allowing them to lead the conversation is key. If they aren’t sure where to start, ask them if they know what they want for end of life care. Finding all available resources is a great first step so they can weigh their care and treatment options. A good place to start may be gauging their interest in speaking with a palliative or hospice care counselor, a member of the clergy, or a therapist.
If the terminally ill patient is a child, the approach to offer support and care may look a little different. “Use simple words if and when the child chooses to speak about death,” Hudzik suggests, “but be honest, respectful, and compassionate. Be open, but don’t force it.” The child may benefit from talking about their fears, joys, or even anger. If the child wants to know what to expect, the parents or caregivers should be prepared to share that information in a truthful way with language that is age appropriate. It’s also important that parents and loved ones accept that the child may not want to talk about it at all. Follow the child’s lead, and only provide information when they ask for it.
No matter the age of a person with a terminal illness, the best thing to do is to listen and provide comfort. Hudzik suggests that friends and family members “talk to them about things they want to do at this stage of their life, and see if there’s a way to make it happen.” Though a terminal diagnosis can be difficult, a fulfilling life is possible. Centerstone can help provide support to terminally ill patients and their families. Call us at 877-HOPE123 (1-877-467-3123) or visit our counseling services page.