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What to Say to Someone with a Terminal Illness


When a friend, family member or acquaintance is diagnosed with a terminal illness, it can be difficult to know what to say and how to show support. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interacting with someone with a life-limiting illness, the following suggestions can help you navigate the situation.

Avoid saying, “It’s going to be OK.”

In many situations, providing reassurance that “it will be OK” is a natural response. It’s a statement that is said with the best intentions and in many situations, it can be reassuring. However, if you are speaking with someone who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s impossible to know the long-term outcome of the situation and a statement like this may come across as insensitive. Instead, try saying, “I’m here for you,” “I hate that you’re going through this,” or “This must be hard news for you to share.”

Make sure to say something.

Although it can be difficult to know what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, it is important to acknowledge the situation. All too frequently, even those closest to the person who has received a terminal illness diagnosis may feel uncomfortable and decide to not address the situation. Ignoring the elephant in the room can be very hurtful to the individual with the life-liming illness. Words of encouragement such as, “I love you,” or “I’m thinking of you,” can provide a great deal of reassurance and be more helpful than not saying anything at all.

Make it clear that you’ll be there for them.

Frequently, people offer help by saying, “Call me if you need anything,” but this puts the onus on the terminally ill person. When processing the diagnosis of a terminal illness, it’s common for an individual to feel overwhelmed. He or she may not be able to articulate a specific need or the person may be worried about inconveniencing a friend or family member with a request for help or support. Instead, offer specific help. Ask if you can assist with laundry, pick up prescriptions, make dinner once per week, or accompany him or her to a doctor’s appointment.

Try to create a sense of normalcy.

Individuals who are terminally ill need a break from thinking about their illness. Engage in conversations that center on day-to-day life such as a recently released movie, their children or grandchildren, or experiences from their past that bring joy. If the individual feels up to it, consider inviting them out for coffee, dinner, or a walk.

Be a good listener.

It’s important to be present when you’re having a conversation with a terminally ill loved one. Make eye contact and remain focused on what your loved one is sharing. Don’t feel compelled to fill every moment of silence. Chiming in too quickly can may make your loved one feel as if you’re anxious or wanting to change the subject.

Offer help with end-of-life matters.

Your friend or loved one may want to discuss health care proxies, funeral arrangements, wills, or other end-of-life matters with you. Communicating their wishes with someone they can trust is very important and can bring a great deal of relief.

At Superior Home Health & Hospice, the Santa Maria home health experts, our compassionate care team is knowledgeable and expertly trained in helping individuals and their families navigate a life-limiting illness. Learn more about our hospice care services and how our team of clinicians and staff help meet end-of-life care, pain management and spiritual needs. For more information about our Santa Maria care services and care throughout the surrounding areas, contact us online, or call us at 805-742-4514.

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