When a close friend or loved one is dying, it is ‘normal’ to need time to absorb all the information and what the diagnosis means for them. It may feel really difficult to accept what is happening, and you might push it out of your mind for a while. If the reality of the situation really hits you, you may find yourself in an emotional and spiritual crisis.

Your view of life may change, you may question your beliefs, and you may experience feelings that are difficult to acknowledge. You may reflect on your relationship, shared memories, and the prospect of life without them, which can evoke a lot of emotional pain. You may also feel anxious about what’s to come, and how you will cope without them.

At times you may find that the thought of their death is put on hold, and you can enjoy special moments together. I see this as a valuing of the time you have left together, and these moments can become precious memories for you. 

How you might be feeling

Whilst your feelings are usually associated with the kind of relationship you have with this person, you may feel confused, and that this cannot be happening or cannot be true. You may feel that life is cruel or unkind, and say to yourself and others “they don’t deserve this”.

Anger is a common feeling, and you may look to something or others to blame. You may feel guilt or regret about something you have or haven’t done. You may feel helpless and stressed because you cannot control what’s happening, or what may happen in the coming days, weeks or months.

Whilst some people witness a relatively short illness, you may feel particularly distressed at the changes life-limiting illness can bring, such as physical pain and suffering, loss of independence, changes in personality, or a combination of all of these. If you are caring for this person, you may feel physically and mentally exhausted. You may feel that you cannot attend to your own needs because they are your priority right now. You may feel that you have to be strong for this person, and for others that are also in a close relationship with them.

What can help

1) Talk about how you are feeling

Facing a close friend or loved one’s life-limiting illness is emotionally challenging, and it is really important to allow yourself to receive support. Whilst friends can be a great source of support, bereavement counselling can be very helpful in coping and coming to terms with life-limiting illness. Support groups can also help, and if you have a Facebook account you are very welcome to join my online group.

2) Nurture togetherness within the family

If a family member is dying, try not to take on the role of the person who ‘holds the family together’ – your feelings are important too. Make time to share how you are feeling with one another, rather than shutting down or avoiding it. If strained relationships are causing difficulties in you being there for each other, counselling can help.

3) Try to address any unfinished business

Life-limiting illness can sometimes offer the opportunity to address the unspoken, and resolve old hurts. Whilst these kinds of conversations can feel very difficult, a resolution can reduce the feelings of guilt and regret, and this can bring healing for both of you.

4) Cry together

Crying releases a range of feelings, and if you need to cry you don’t have to do it away from this person. Crying in front of them can give them permission to do the same, and crying together can deepen the connection between you.

5) Spend time together

You can talk about your relationship and shared memories, and even smile and laugh together. If this person wants to express fears or concerns, allow them the space to do so. Engage In things this person wants to do, when they are able to do them. Don’t worry about sitting quietly with this person – sometimes being with them is enough.

6) Take care of you

Try to focus on what’s happening now – trying to deal with everything at once can be really overwhelming. Keep up your fluid and food intake, and try to sleep as well as you can. Take time out to rest, and practice mindfulness or some other relaxation technique. Do something that makes you feel good inside.