Coping with the news that you’re dying

Saturday 1 February, 2014

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This page discusses the different ways you may cope with the news that you’re approaching the end of life and how your family and friends may cope.

  • People may feel shocked, frightened, angry, helpless, anxious or even relieved when told that they are approaching the end of life. These feelings are likely to change often.
  • Finding someone to talk to may help you cope with these feelings. It can be a family member, a friend or a professional, such as a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Depression is understandably common.
  • Telling friends or family about your prognosis can be difficult. You may find it helps to prepare what you want to say.
  • People may react in a variety of ways. Some people may not know what to say.

Learning that you may not have long to live is shocking news. Even if you are aware that the cancer is progressing, hearing that you are dying is likely to be devastating.

We all know that death is a natural part of life and that it will happen to us all one day, however most of us hope that we won’t die anytime soon. Realising that death is close can be frightening and hard to believe. However, for some people, it may be a relief.

You may have questions straightaway or you might need time to absorb the news and come to terms with the prognosis.

Your feelings

After the initial shock, feelings of fear, anger, despair, helplessness and anxiety are common. You may also worry about being a burden to family and friends; emotionally, physically, socially and financially.

You probably will have more than one emotion at a time. These feelings are likely to change, sometimes from day-to-day or even from hour-to-hour. This is often part of the process of making sense of what is happening. You may find it hard to think clearly. It’s natural to cry at this time, don’t feel like you have to put on a brave face.

Many people compare these feelings to waves at the beach. Sometimes waves knock you off your feet, other times your footing is a little stronger. But, at anytime, a large wave can suddenly come back and knock you off your feet again.

The waves of your emotions don’t hit in any particular order or strength. However, people often say that their fears, thoughts and feelings are stronger at night, when they’re lying in bed, and that they don’t often share them with family and friends.

You may feel unsure of how to cope with your feelings and emotions. Find someone you can talk to; perhaps a family member or friend. You could also consider professional help through a general practitioner (GP), counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist or spiritual adviser. Other people nearing the end of life offer a unique perspective and you may want to consider joining a support group.

These feelings probably won’t go away altogether, but they may change over time and you may learn strategies to help you live as well as you are able for as long as you can.

"The worst is at night when I am in bed. Lying there on my own I start thinking about funerals and I get the horrors. I’ll be sitting there watching telly and suddenly remember that I’m dying. There are moments when my brain swirls and I think of things I’ve done and people I’ve hurt in the past. It’s a suffocating feeling, all jumbled thoughts – it’s 60 years of memories at once. I’ve found a cure though: I just get in the bath. That’s the only thing that relaxes me now."
Victor Fournere, Living with death, The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011

Telling others

People share the news in different ways. There’s no easy way to start this conversation but you may find it helps to prepare.

  • When you feel ready, decide who to tell and what you want to say.
  • Think of answers to possible questions, but only respond if you feel comfortable. You don’t have to share every detail.
  • Choose a quiet time and place.
  • Be prepared for people being uncomfortable and perhaps not knowing what to say.
  • Accept that the person you are telling may get upset. You may find yourself comforting them, even though you are the one dying.
  • Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need help telling people. They can help you find the words that feel right for you.

For ways to talk to people (including children) about dying, see emotional concerns.

When family decides

Sometimes family members learn the cancer is terminal before the person who is dying. They may think the person is too young or too old to be told the truth. Some cultures may also think it’s best that the person is not told.

Often people who are dying know what is happening. Keeping it a secret from them may mean they feel isolated and lonely at a time when they most need support. Although it may be difficult, it is best to be honest and truthful.

Reviewed by: Dr Melanie Price, Executive Director, Psycho-oncology Co-operative Research Group, Senior Research Fellow, School of Psychology, University of Sydney; Dr Erica Cameron-Taylor, Staff Specialist, Department of Palliative Medicine, Mercy Hospital and Calvery Mater Newcastle, NSW; Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar, Telephone Support Group Facilitator, Cancer Council NSW; Helpline and Cancer Counselling Service staff, Cancer Council QLD; Judith Quinlivan, Consumer; Linda Wolfe, Consumer; and Dr Mary Brooksbank, Philip Plummer and Claire Maskell Gibson on behalf of Palliative Care Australia.
Updated: 01 Feb, 2014