Facing end of life

Coping with the news that you’re dying

Friday 20 March, 2020

This section discusses some ways you may cope with the news that you’re approaching the end of life, and how your family and friends may react. Everyone copes in their own way. It is natural to have a range of strong emotions and for these feelings to change often.

Hearing the news

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 can be extremely upsetting.

We all know that death is a natural part of life and that it will happen to us all one day, but most of us hope that we won’t die anytime soon. Realising that death is close can be frightening and hard to believe. For some people, it may be a relief. You may have questions right away, or you might need time to absorb the news and come to terms with the expected outcome of your disease (prognosis).

How you might feel

You will probably have many strong emotions. After the initial shock, feelings of fear, denial, anger, despair, helplessness and anxiety are common. You may also worry about how your family and friends will cope – emotionally, physically, socially and financially. The news will mean that you can’t live the future you’d planned. It may mean leaving behind a partner, children, family, friends and pets.

You may find that your emotions 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. How you respond to these feelings will vary.  You may find it hard to think clearly. It’s natural to cry or feel completely overwhelmed; you don’t need to put on a brave face.

Some people compare these feelings to waves at the beach. The first waves may knock you off your feet, then your footing becomes a little stronger. But, at any time, a large wave can suddenly come back and knock you off your feet again. The waves of emotions may not hit in any particular order, but people often say that their fears are stronger when it's quieter at night, and that they rarely share how they are feeling with others.

You may be able to work out your own ways to cope with these feelings. Find someone you can talk to, perhaps a family member or friend. You could also consider seeking professional help through a palliative care specialist or nurse, general practitioner (GP), counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist or spiritual adviser. Other people nearing the end of life offer a unique perspective, so you may want to consider joining a support group.
"I’ll be sitting there watching telly and suddenly remember that I’m dying...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 is no easy way to start this conversation, but you may find it helps to practise what you are going to say.

  • 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.
  • Accept that people may react in a number of ways. They may be uncomfortable and perhaps not know what to say. If they get upset, you may find yourself comforting them, even though you are the one dying. Another common reaction is denial – they may be convinced that the doctors are wrong.
  • Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need help telling people. They can help you find the words that feel right for you. Another option is to ask your doctor or nurse to help you share the news.

For ways to talk to people (including children) about dying, see Emotional and spiritual concerns.

Do people who are dying need to be told?

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.

Usually people who are dying know what is happening.

Trying to keep it a secret from them may mean they feel alone just when they most need support. Ask the person if they would want to know and follow their wishes. The health care team can help you with this conversation and also with an approach for complex situations, such as when the person dying has dementia.

Expert content reviewers:

Dr Megan Ritchie, Staff Specialist Palliative Medicine, Palliative Care Service, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; Gabrielle Asprey, Cancer Support Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Rosemary Cavanough, Consumer; Louise Durham, Nurse Practitioner, Metro South Palliative Care Service, QLD; Tracey Gardner, Senior Psychologist, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council Queensland; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Linda Nolte, Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia, VIC; Rowena Robinson, Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia, ACT; Helena Rodi, Program Manager, Advance Care Planning Australia, VIC.

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