What to say to someone with a terminal illness

What do you say to someone with a terminal illness? (Picture: Getty)

Knowing what to say to a loved one or acquaintance with a terminal illness can be difficult.

Many of us would feel awful if we accidentally said the wrong thing, but is there even a ‘right thing’ to say at all?

If you’re not sure what to say, consider the below – featuring expert guidance from Cancer Research UK, Marie Curie, the NHS and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)

Listen and learn

If you’re close enough to the person, you’ll know how best to communicate with them.

Do they like to talk through their feelings, or do they prefer to process them privately?

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is listen (Picture: Getty)

Sometimes, the best option is to offer an ear and let the person dealing with these difficult circumstances talk as much or as little as they like, about whatever they like.

Cancer Research UK recommends listening as the first approach to take.

Don’t say ‘it’ll be OK’

Your instinct may be to reassure – but saying something like ‘it’ll be alright’ isn’t the right approach.

Avoid empty reassurances – and don’t attempt to say ‘you know how they feel’, either.

Remember: things are not likely going to be ‘OK’, even so that’s not a promise you can make, and you don’t know how they truly feel.

Liwanag Ojala, chief executive officer of CaringBridge, gave the AARP some alternatives, such as: 

  • I wish this wasn’t happening to you. 
  • This must be hard news for you to share.  
  • I’m here for you.       
Be careful when trying to be reassuring (Picture: Getty)

Ask open questions

The last thing anyone wants is to be compared to someone else – especially in this sensitive situation.

Though you may have another loved one who miraculously recovered from a serious illness, that’s not relevant to the person you’re talking to.

Instead of making comparisons, focus on them and their unique experience.

If they want to talk, ask questions which allow them to say as much or as little as they want to, such as:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • How are you holding up right now?
  • Would you like to talk right now?
  • What are you thinking about?
  • What is worrying you at the moment?

Ask if there’s anything specific you can do to help

Although often well-meaning, saying ‘call me if you need any help’ isn’t all that useful.

It puts the pressure on the person who is ill to reach out. They may not want to burden anyone, or feel guilty about asking for something.

Can you offer some specific help? (Picture: Getty)

Instead, think about what help you can genuinely offer and make a specific, timely request, such as:

  • Would you like a lift to your appointment next week?
  • Can I drop off some food shopping tomorrow?
  • Can I come around on Saturday to help with your housework?

Maintain some normalcy

Though life will be very different for the person who has a terminal illness – as well as those around them – talking solely about illness can be taxing.

Glyn Thomas, a palliative care worker for Marie Curie, told patient.info: “Illness can make people feel very institutionalised and removed from everyday life.

“Therefore discussing what is happening in the real world is often a good thing and makes people feel part of things.”

Think about what your loved one usually wants to talk about: is it the news? Their favourite TV show? What the family’s kids got up to at school? The office gossip?

If in doubt, you can always ask them if they’d like for you to talk about these things from time to time.

Avoid cliches and spiritual statements

a sunny sky

Avoid cliches and religious sentiments (Picture: Getty)

Cliches are often well-meaning, but they’re often not the kindest thing to say to a person who is dealing with a terminal condition.

For example, saying ‘everything happens for a reason’ to someone looking at the end of their life is the opposite of comforting – it’s hugely offensive.

Similarly, talking about religion to a non-religious person isn’t going to bring them any comfort.

Instead, consider the person you’re talking to and their beliefs – before sharing cliches, religious or spiritual sentiments.

Say thank you, offer forgiveness

It can be difficult to have hard conversations with a loved one who is nearing the end of their life.

But don’t be afraid to say ‘I love you’.

If someone asks you for forgiveness, consider whether you are able to say ‘I forgive you’.

And if someone has played an important role in your life, say ‘thank you’.

And if you still don’t know what to say…

Simply try ‘I’m thinking of you’ (Picture: Getty)

Though it’s difficult to talk about, saying nothing shouldn’t be an option. 

If you can’t find the right words, try a simple ‘I’m thinking of you’ or “Thinking of you today’.


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