When Someone You Love Faces Terminal Illness

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 21, 2022
When Someone You Love Faces Terminal Illness

Don’t expect them to embrace death. Your job is to accept what comes. A serious illness might help you both put aside quarrels and disappointments.

The late Owen Surman, a psychiatrist who had lost his wife Lezlie, wrote his account of their last times together in “The Wrong Side of an Illness: A Doctor’s Love Story.” He wrote, “I began to live in the present. Tragedy had cast a spotlight on the beauty of life and the power of love.”

Surman described how caregivers must put aside plans and dreams and focus on the needs of the person who is ill, learning helpful strategies and adaptability. “Live like a surfer! We do not command the tides,” he wrote. The metaphor came naturally to the man who had served as a Navy psychiatrist in Hawaii.


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If a loved one is dying, their terminal diagnosis might actually lead to more intimacy between the two of you. If you both let go of grievances, you can fully enjoy the time you have left.

Much of the time, your loved one may treasure life as usual. You may be a child caring for a dying parent: Allow a parent to parent you. If you normally confided and sought advice, don’t stop completely, or your parent will feel the loss. Look for cues.

If your dear friend is ill, try to keep up your natural banter and storytelling. If you are sharing a household with a dying person, help but don’t do everything. Daily chores can provide structure, purpose, and distraction. At the same time, try to add variety and color to the days when your loved one is feeling strong.

Invite a conversation about fears. Your loved one may be afraid of pain, or of losing personal autonomy. People who are ill often fear becoming a burden. Be willing to listen and say so, then demonstrate your openness — ask a question and wait. Don’t rush. Never underestimate the value of your presence, even if you feel helpless and wish you could do more.

Urge close friends and family to speak candidly to your loved one, asking, “What can I do? What shouldn’t I do?”

Let friends and family know that they need not provide forced cheeriness or solutions. The simple words may be best: I'm sorry. I want to help if I can. You're a wonderful friend. I love you.

Some people may not speak with family about their fears but will open up with a medical professional or spiritual counsellor.

Don’t expect the person you love to openly come to terms with death. Be ready for any conversation a sick person begins, but don’t push. Your loved one may need to let the truth in slowly and continue to live as before for as long as possible. Second opinions are fine. Let your loved one hope.

If your loved one isn’t seeking painful treatments of no therapeutic value, there’s no reason to label hope as denial.

On the other hand, your loved one may be faster than you are to face death, sometimes with little or no discussion. Do not push too hard against a choice to pursue hospice care rather than further treatment, though you might ask why. You can assure your loved one that he or she is not a burden.

If you live in a state that has legalized assisted suicide for the terminally ill, assure your loved one that you’re in no rush and are glad to provide care. Your loved one may ask for a prescription for a sense of control and decide later when or whether to take it. About a third of the people who ask for a suicide pill under Oregon’s assisted suicide law never take it.

Don’t insist that you can do all the caring alone. Surman suggests enlisting help from friends and family, identifying what each person can do — from telephone calls, child care, preparing meals, visiting the hospital, and transportation.

It’s a good idea to devise schedules — for instance, for hospital visits from friends — and advise people how long to stay.

Surman wrote that grief does not progress through standard stages. The idea is an oversimplification of a model proposed by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who also observed that the “stages” might overlap and some reactions never occur.

Your emotions can change quickly, from denial one minute to anger the next, with sadness, relief, moments of joy, and waves of crying all tossed in.

As the caregiver, don't neglect yourself. It doesn’t help your loved one if you become sick or run down. Do other things to recharge. Your loved one does not want to see you suffer.

If you find yourself afflicted with insomnia, chronic irritability, suicidal thoughts, or the desire to withdraw from everyone you know, seek help.

Surman wrote that he felt “empty” and “old” after Lezlie’s death. He bought himself a deep red Sarouk Persian rug and comforted himself by lying on it on the floor. He began online dating and cried on the way home from lunch dates. In his work, he became more candid, and felt that he could reach his patients more intimately.

You can find love again, if you so desire. Surman is an example: He had many happy years with his second wife, Amy, before he passed away in 2021 at the age of 78.


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July 21, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN