The Family’s Perspective

When Your Loved One is Terminally Ill

Family members have much to grieve for; perhaps the loss of future plans, roles that the patient filled or a past shared.  Not only are they grieving the losses and changes of the present, but they are also anticipating what the loss will mean in the days, months and years ahead.  On the one hand, they are attending to the needs of the ill family member and maintaining involvement with him.  On the other hand, they find that they begin to reinvest emotional energy toward how life will continue after he dies.  There is never enough time or energy to attend to these opposing needs.

  •  Family members may feel as if they are just going through the motions of everyday life.  They often try to protect the patient by not talking about the illness or the future.
  •  Family members may feel angry at many things, including the following:  the diagnosis, the situation because there is nothing that can be done to stop the progression of the illness, the healthcare workers, or the thought of the person dying and leaving them alone.
  •  Family may also make bargains in seeking a miracle.  They may feel guilty for being healthy and offer more care than is realistic, exhausting themselves.
  •  It may be hard for the family to ask for help.
  •  Family members may wish they had treated the patient better or fear that they have contributed to their illness.
  •  The unknowns of the future may be overwhelming and self-care suffers.
  •  Family members may wish to be more present at the very time the patient is withdrawing.  They may have conflicting feelings:  e.g. wanting the patient’s dying process to end, while not wanting a future without him.
  •  Family members may find it difficult to keep a balance between patient needs and family needs.

When caring for someone else, it is hard to have energy for oneself and to see this as important.  Building in time for self-care is crucial, e.g. sleep, nutrition, exercise, relaxation.  Recognize that all members of the family have needs … physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Also, family strength and good health makes it possible for them to support and care for the person who is ill.

Adapted from:  T. Rando, Grief, Dying & Death, Research Press.  Illinois, 1984.