Coping with the Terminal Illness of a Family Member

terminal illness

Whether you just received the news yesterday or you’ve been mulling through the emotions for days, weeks, or months, dealing with the terminal illness of a family member leaves confusion, pain, and panic in its wake.

You may have a lot of questions that have gone unanswered. You may find it difficult to remove the picture of death from your focus.

Whatever your particular struggle, know that it is possible to cope and make this process as manageable for your family as possible. However, like grief there is no perfect, cookie cutter pattern for you to follow that guarantees success. Everyone will move forward a couple steps to only move backwards a couple. Be assured this is normal.

There are five steps that you will eventually stumble into during this time. Hopefully this article will help make these five steps more noticeable and manageable for you and your family during this time.

No one but those in the throes of it, or those who have experienced it previously, can truly understand what it’s like to deal with terminal illness in the family. Terminal illness can be as impending as mere weeks or months, and as extensive as years. Terminal illness focuses family members to discuss issues that are often swept under the rug like death and afterlife. For some this can be awkward, uncomfortable, and painful. Without guidance, these issues can fester and multiply into bigger issues.

Prolonged illness can cause surrounding family members to spiral into depression, anxiety, or guilt. In addition, dealing with these family issues can also cause family disagreements that only enhance the difficulty of the situation. The length of time you spend in each stage will depend on you individually as well as the length of the terminal illness. You may find yourself wedged between several stages at the same time, and that’s okay.

One – Crisis

The moment of diagnoses immediately launches the family into crisis mode. Factors that effect how you feel in this stage include:

  • Your current status with the given family member
  • The family member’s location in the family (spouse, sibling, child, etc.)
  • The patient’s current role/responsibilities within the family

In addition, if you have an estranged or rocky relationship with the given family member you may feel overcome with guilt. If the family member is young, or even worse a child, you may be inclined towards anger.

At this stage it is highly recommended to seek professional guidance, such as a therapist. A therapist will allow you a safe place to vent your anger that will not impede upon the grieving of others in the family.

Two – Unity

Often the reality of impending death brings a family closer together than it ever was before. During this stage the focus is on the terminally ill member of the family. During this time family members will be defining their individual roles with respect to the family member.

Things to think about include:

  • Choosing and working with a medical team
  • Legal work (i.e. wills)

Three – Upheaval

At this stage it becomes important to participate in open and honest communication with all family members. As life wears on, unity begins to break down as emotions and reality take a toll on all involved.

At this point failure to communicate efficiently can lead to broken relationships and greater stress during this time.

Four – Resolution

This stage is often marked by a major deterioration in the loved one’s health. More than others this stage is difficult for many families because it requires family members to address problems within the family, especially if said problems are with the terminally ill member.

Since dealing with the negative emotions in the past is uncomfortable for many, some families will choose to skirt issues under the rug until the very end. However, if family members are able to be open and honest with each other by addressing old rivalries, resentments, jealousy etc., they set themselves up for a smooth transition into renewal.

Five – Renewal

Renewal begins after the terminally ill has passed. While the funeral/celebration of life brings mixed emotions for sure, it hopefully brings a sense of peace to the family. If the family has been diligent about communication during this time, each family member can come to this time looking forward as much as they look backward.

This time can be productive as the family discusses how celebration will be handled. What is a selected time of sadness can be altered into a rebirth for the family.


There are many that say terminal illness is more difficult than sudden death, because it forces family members and friends to deal with the stress of impending death every day until the faithful day it happens. While it is impossible to put a measure of weight on different grieving situations, it is important to note the difficulty of dealing with terminal illness.

Remember that you do not have to go through this alone. If your family is not a conducive environment for bonding together during this time, reach out to a professional, such as a therapist, to vent your emotions and talk through your pain. Involving a third party with no involvement in your situation, allows you to talk freely without having to worry about burdening other family members or personal friends. This way you can speak freely and see that you take care of yourself mentally during this time.

More than anything else, this time will be riddled with instances where it is necessary to focus on the terminally ill family member. However, do not forget to take time for yourself. It is not selfish, in fact, it is completely necessary.

When the stress begins to mount take a walk, go to the gym, or go fishing. Whatever it is you like to do, make time to do it. During this time your life may feel like it is utterly out of control.

Coping with the impending death of someone close to you is difficult. Remember this is a personal journey as much as it is a collective one. Allow yourself the opportunity to live with your loved one while you have the time, but also allow yourself the opportunity to grieve appropriately. It is a part of the natural process of healing. Resisting or refusing grief can only cause you deeper problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Image courtesy of: Sura Nualpradid at

Tips and strategies to help you heal from the shock and desperation from losing someone you love. Also included are true stories from others who have walked the journey of grief, and how they have overcome the raw emotions that accompany the death of a loved one
About LM 86 Articles

In tribute to her son’s passing, Lora C Mercado has been on a quest to help bring peace to those who are in a state of grief with her healing and inspirational books. She is also the founder of the website,, which provides articles and resources to help one cope with grief and loss.

“Our Angels Await, Stories of Love from Beyond”, includes true stories from people across the globe who have had connections with loved ones who have passed away.

“Adjusting to Life After Loss, Coping with the Death of a Loved One and Honoring Their Memory”, was released in October 2014. The second book in the series, “Adjusting to Life After the Loss of a Child, Coping, Healing and Understanding the Emotions of Grief” was released in January 2015.

You may also enjoy her two latest books:
“Healing Grief through Meditation: A Guide to Spiritual Wellness for the Bereaved” and “365 Quotes of Comfort for the Bereaved: A Year of Daily Inspiration to Heal Your Heart”

Lora Mercado is also a Usui Reiki Master Practitioner and ordained minister.


  1. I always thought myself to be lucky to have had time to spend saying goodbye while sudden death means you don’t get that chance. Of course we still have regrets when there finally gone and wish we could have them back for just one more day.

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