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End of Life

Coping With Terminal Illness Part 2: For The Family

Reviewed by: MySeniorCare Staff
Last Updated: 4/14/2010 10:14:34 AM

Terminal illness impacts the lives not only of the patient, but also the lives of their friends and family members. Questions, doubts, frustrations and feelings of inadequacy are common, but fortunately there are resources for the family members of a terminally ill patient that might help them cope throughout the process.

Recognizing Your Own Grief

The tendency for family members who are coping with terminal illness is to place the focus solely on their loved one. While this is admirable, it also creates a void in terms of grief management and mental health. If you do not consider your own feelings throughout this process, you will be ill-equipped to help your loved one.

There are bereavement counselors who can help both children and adults cope with the terminal illness of a family member. This service is often covered by insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, and may be facilitated through a hospice or skilled nursing program. Family members should take advantage when it is offered.

Addressing Fault with Children

According to the American Cancer Society, children often deal with feelings of fault when coping with terminal illness. They may feel that they caused their family members to suffer pain or get sick, and it is important to ensure that they realize they are not at fault.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of coping with terminal illness is working with children family members. Younger kids are unable to fully grasp what is happening to their mother or father (or other relative), and might therefore internalize the pain and feel guilt.

Dealing with Denial

Many terminally ill patients undergo periods of denial. Denial is a natural defense mechanism that helps patients avoid the fear of dying, and forcing a patient to relinquish denial is not always healthy.

It is suggested that family members address fears rather than denial with a patient who has a terminal illness. Confronting individual fears (e.g. pain, incapacitation, loss of control) rather than the totality of the illness itself might make the entire process less overwhelming.

Honoring Memories

Family members might find coping with terminal illness easier if they can talk freely with their loved ones. Spouses, for example, might talk about their courtship or their first years of marriage, while adult children can recount stories of their childhoods, bringing their loved ones back to a happier place.

However, family members should not suffer guilt if they are unable to maintain a constant vigil with their loved ones. Coping with a terminal illness might involve months or even years, and it is important to take care of your own life as well as that of your loved one.

Providing Comfort

In many cases, it is helpful for both family members and patients to express thoughts of the future. For example, a man might tell his wife that he will be alright once she is gone to give her comfort before she passes. Not only does this relieve any guilt the patient might experience, but it also can help family members begin to process the prospect of living without their loved one.

There is no one right answer when it comes to coping with terminal illness, and all family members handle their emotions and thoughts differently. However, if you take advantage of counselors and resources at your disposal, and if you remember to take care of yourself as well as your loved one, the process will be easier.

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