Serious and terminal illness
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Serious and terminal illness

To read about chronic pain, click here

Whether you have been recently diagnosed or have been living with a serious or terminal illness for a long time, you are likely to be working through a range of emotions at any one time. Shock, denial, fear, anger, disbelief, resentment, anxiety are all common feelings to experience.

What is a terminal illness?

When an illness or disease is described as terminal, it means it is not able to be adequately treated or cured and the expected result is the passing of the patient in a relatively short period of time.

It is impossible to imagine or predict how you might feel if ever faced with such a diagnosis. It is very common to feel isolated, even if you have a supportive network of friends and family. You may find that you struggle to keep relationships as they were, as you come to terms with your diagnosis and your friends and family attempt to do the same.

Whether you are living with a serious illness or a terminal diagnosis, you will be learning to accept the idea of uncertainty into your life. Full knowledge of life’s uncertainty can come as a shock. You may have lots of questions, which may not necessarily have any concrete answers. This can be very frustrating.

Who should I talk to?

Though you may not feel like talking to anyone, especially at first, even to friends and loved ones, never mind a stranger, it can be immensely useful. However isolated you may feel, you do not need to travel this road alone. Any serious illness is naturally a frightening experience, and can bring up many concerns, about the present and future.

You may find that those closest to you are not necessarily the best people to talk to. They will be struggling to come to terms with your situation too – especially if you have received a diagnosis of terminal illness - and might not know what to say. Some therapists have a lot of experience working with people with serious and terminal illnesses; you can find some here, on the welldoing directory. 

There are also support networks out there, ready to connect you with other people in a similar situation to yourself. This can be a great comfort, to yourself and quite possibly to your loved ones, who may have been struggling in the knowledge that they cannot truly know how you feel.

Living with a serious or terminal illness is a personal experience and you should work through your feelings in a way that feels right for you.

How can I help myself?

This will depend on your personal situation, so it’s a good idea to consult your doctor. In general, taking care of yourself in terms of eating a healthy diet, getting restful sleep and keeping up with activities you enjoy are all worthwhile. Be self-compassionate if you are finding it more difficult to do things you used to do with ease. It might be helpful to bear in mind that you may have to assess your capabilities as you go along, these might change. Celebrate all victories, however small.

Coping with the reactions of your friends and family

Though an intensely personal journey, the event of serious or terminal illness often has an effect on many people besides the person directly implicated. Just as your own reaction to your situation might have surprised you, so might that of your loved ones.

They have distanced themselves

This may feel particularly painful, at a time when you need support more than ever. It is quite possible that friends and family distance themselves as they are in denial and reluctant to face up to the reality of the situation. Some people also feel at a loss of what to say or do to support you and can convince themselves that it would be best if they didn’t try, rather than try and get it wrong. Try reaching out and starting the conversation with them. Once they are informed about the best ways you would welcome their support, they may be able to cope with the situation better and consequently be better equipped to help you.

They have become overbearing

The opposite is also quite common. Your friends and family might become overbearing, insisting you accept their help and making you feel as though your opinions aren’t heard. This can of course be very frustrating! It is important that you talk to them so they can understand that you may not be ready to talk about your situation yet, let alone take on a long list of advice. Having this conversation can be tense, as your friends and family are acting from a well-intentioned place, but with patience both sides can be heard and understood.

Your family and friends are an important support network in times of difficulty. It might be difficult, especially if you had previously been living a highly independent life, but it is most often beneficial to accept offers of help when they come to you. Friends and family will appreciate feeling useful, with a job to do, even if these are practical, simple tasks, such as offering to do the shopping for you.

How can therapists support people with serious or terminal illness?

Often people find it helpful to talk to someone removed from the situation. This goes for many mental and emotional problems, and is certainly the case for many with a serious or terminal illness.

A qualified, experienced professional therapist can help you work through the different feelings you may be experiencing. You may also find that, whether you have experienced mental health issues in the past or not, you are exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression. A therapist or counsellor can help you with these symptoms.

A counselling session may also provide relief as it acts as a space for you to voice your thoughts and raise questions that may feel too loaded in a personal, family environment. Being able to voice these concerns and questions to a non-judgemental, unbiased person can be very beneficial.

Seeing a family or systemic therapist may also be useful. Family dynamics can change when a member of the family has a serious or terminal illness. Roles and relationships within the family unit may become strained, and it may be difficult for people to express how they feel in a healthy and helpful way. A family or systemic therapist can help mediate these difficult situations and be a guide, enabling open channels of communication and encouraging acceptance within this changed family unit. The same goes for a relationship counsellor, if the family unit consists of just yourself and your partner. 

It may not always be possible for you to visit a counsellor or therapist in person. There are many therapists who offer support online, whether over video or email, and on the phone. Some therapists also offer home visits. 

Find a therapist with experience in this area

Further reading

After my cancer diagnosis, therapy helped me feel less alone

How to navigate hard conversations after a terminal diagnosis

The psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis

Last updated 7 April 2022