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Life-Threatening Illness: What to Tell Family, Friends

One of the hardest things about learning you have a life-threatening or terminal illness is figuring out how to tell the people you love.

What do you say? When do you tell them? And how do you talk about tough topics  -- your wishes for removal of life support, for example, or whether you want to be buried or cremated?

You may worry about how loved ones will feel and want to protect them from the harsh truth. But, say the experts at Capital Caring, which daily serves more than 1,000 people living with advanced illness in the Washington, D.C. area, your family and closest friends deserve to know. And many people also find that telling others about their diagnosis brings a sense of relief.

So how do you go about sharing the news? There's no one right way. You can:

  • Tell one very trusted family member or friend and ask that person to spread the word among your loved ones
  • Meet with family members and friends individually to talk about your condition
  • Hold a "family meeting" to explain the news
  • Ask a doctor, nurse, or social worker to talk to your family or to be with you when you do

You can't predict how family members and other loved ones will react. Some will cry; some will become numb; and some will be eager to jump in and be the 'go-to helper' person.

Many people will ask what they can do to help. If you know what that is, it's a good idea to tell them, or they will come up with their own ideas of how to help, which may or may not be what you need. You might want:

  • Someone to sit with you and hold your hand during times of day that are particularly tough for you
  • To talk a lot about your diagnosis and condition
  • To talk about anything but your diagnosis and condition
  • People to help you get out and participate in activities you enjoy
  • Friends to help you with mundane daily activities, or with caring for children or pets


Talking to Children

What if you have to share the news of a life-threatening illness with your child or grandchild? Many people fear talking about death or the possibility of death with children and try to hide the information. But that can be unhealthy.

Even a child of three or four is old enough to know in simple terms what's happening. And talking about it creates the opportunity to have some closure -- both for the child and the person who is dying. When talking to a young child, it's important to not give too much information. And what you do say should always be age appropriate. 

For example, you might tell your young child, "Grandma's very sick. She's trying to get better and her doctors have been helping her, but it looks like she is probably going to die."

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