Many people are not comfortable talking about the end of life. This information covers common reactions and how to cope with them.
Most people are not used to talking openly about death and dying, and it’s common to avoid this conversation.
There may be days when you feel like talking about approaching the end of life, and days when you don’t. It may even change from minute to minute.
In general, it can help to talk about your fears and concerns about death with trusted family and friends. When you share how you think and feel with people you trust, it can often help support all of you through sadness, anxiety and uncertainty.
Some people dying with cancer have said that the process can feel isolating and lonely. This is particularly true if family and friends avoid talking about what is happening. If you want people to acknowledge that dying from cancer is a difficult experience, let them know.
You may find that you don’t want to talk about dying. Or you want to discuss it with some people but not others. You may be the type of person who would prefer to focus on making the most of the time you have left, rather than talking about death. If you don’t want to talk about facing the end of life, don’t force yourself.
In some cultures people think it’s disrespectful to talk about dying. Or they may feel that talking about death makes it happen sooner.
You may sometimes feel that the hardest part about dying is the effect it will have on your family and friends.
People who are living with terminal cancer often say family and friends react in different ways when they find out the disease is at the end stage. You may experience the following responses:
These reactions can be hurtful and frustrating but they don’t mean that your family and friends don’t care. They need time to adjust to the news and come to terms with how they’re feeling.
"People saying, ‘You’ll get well’ makes me really cross. I know I won’t get well. I want to say to them, ‘I am going to die and don’t you dare deny me this business of dying.’"
Telling children that you are dying is confronting and difficult. There is no easy way to approach this conversation, but it is important to let them know what is happening. While you might avoid telling them for as long as possible, children may sense that something has changed, and not sharing can add to their anxiety.
It may be helpful to have your partner or a support person with you when you have this discussion. How you tell your children will depend on their age, but these suggestions may help:
You may live on your own and not be able to receive care from a family member or friend in your own home. If you don’t have family or don’t have contact with them, other services can help – the palliative care team or your local community health service, local council or church group. You may also need to organise practical care from support services.
Finding a way to cope with knowing you are dying can depend on many factors, including your age, whether or not you have children, your relationships with a partner or family, and your cultural or spiritual beliefs.
Everyone will find their own way at their own pace. There is no right or wrong way. For some, learning more about the physical dying process can make it easier to cope. Others find it helps to think ahead within a specific time period.
You may find it hard to feel hopeful when you’ve been told that you’re dying with cancer. While it may be unrealistic to hope for a cure, you can find hope in other things. For example, sharing some special times with those you love.
Studies of people dying with cancer show that people’s hope can be maintained when their health professionals involve them in decision-making, especially about palliative care treatment options and where they’d like to die, and reassuring them that their pain will be well controlled.
"If I didn’t wake up every morning hopeful, then I wouldn’t get out of bed, get dressed, eat or breathe. What’s anyone without hope?"
Holly Webber, Living with death, The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011
For many people, learning that they are approaching the end of life may make them feel like they’ve lost control. If you want to regain control over some areas of your life, you can plan future medical decisions and tidy up unfinished business.
Other losses and changes happen throughout a terminal illness – loss of work, loss of social roles, loss of friendships, loss of connection to community, and loss of independence. A dying person often needs to spend time grieving for these losses.
People often grieve for events they won’t be around for, such as marriages, graduations and having babies. People without children or a partner may mourn the lost opportunity to have these relationships or experiences.
You may also gradually feel less able to do things or you may lose interest in activities you previously enjoyed. Although this process can be helpful in allowing you to get used to the idea of death, it can also make you feel sad and very low.
You may have heard the term ‘living with dying’ and wondered what it means. For many people, it’s the balance between knowing you are dying and still trying to live as fully as possible. This may mean focusing more on the present. You may find that some days it’s easier to achieve this than others.