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I’m Only One Call Away: Helping Loved Ones of Terminally Ill Patients

When someone in the family has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the focus usually goes to the recently diagnosed person. This is common because there are many new medicines, procedures, and tests that patients have to take to survive or know if the disease is spreading to other areas in the body. 

Though it is understandable and even correct that these are the main issues of most people, siblings, and other family members of those recently diagnosed, specifically their mental health should also be looked after. More often than not, the fear and worries these people have for their sibling, parent, or child can slowly eat them up inside and cause an immense amount of grief and stress. Here are some ways to help these people:

1. Recognize their emotions

Acknowledging their emotions is essential to these family members. However, never say things like “I understand how you feel,” especially if you were never in that situation, or “It will get better soon,” especially if you know that is not true. Allowing them to express their feelings regarding their situation and the patient’s situation is often enough to help them cope. 

Moreover, telling these people that their emotions are valid will also help relieve them. Sometimes, negative feelings are experienced by these people, such as regret, envy, or anger. Avoid judging siblings for being envious of the sick patient for getting all the attention. Avoid scolding parents who cry over something they cannot fix. Please recognize that these people need others to lean on, too, especially when they are losing hope.

For children, it is better to let them speak with their parents or professionals that can properly process their emotions. You may also recommend a good grief and life transformation coach to better deal with the situation. It is also common for children to feel left alone if their sibling has a terminal illness. Explaining the situation, talking to them despite a busy day, and allowing them to video call or call with their siblings in the hospital will help address feelings of loneliness.

2. Understand their behavior

Another thing to consider is that sometimes people who care for terminally ill patients may be impatient and short-tempered. This is often the result of stress, lack of sleep, and worry for other things, so avoid dwelling too much or taking it personally if they snap or walk out on you. They often struggle to balance their daily life activities and take care of sick patients, so they usually have a lot on their minds already. Usually, after getting some rest or calming down, they see that what they did was wrong and ask for forgiveness.

It is common for children to act out and take out their grief on others, including their friends and parents. Urging them to understand their child or schoolmate because of their situation is an excellent way to help them cope. However, it is still important to call out bad behavior (in the way it is usually done) if they act out aggressively, bully other kids, or be rude to others. Since they are still learning and undergoing many developmental stages, they cannot always recognize their bad behavior and correct them the same way adults do.

3. Know what to do or expect

Helping a friend research cancer therapy, looking up what to do when a coma patient wakes up, understanding what dialysis is really about and other side effects often give these people the impression that you are there for them and that you can help them if they need to ask for their help. Though most of them can research on their own, it always helps to know other things, add to what they already know, and facilitate these activities if necessary. 

For children, depending on their age and maturity level, the amount to be disclosed should vary. For younger children, a simple explanation is always better than a highly technical one, while teens may also prefer to understand the technical details of the illness. However, one important thing to remember is to never lie to children. Giving false hope and reassurance can often hurt children more than adults. For example, explaining to younger children that their parent or sibling has cancer may be difficult. Still, it is ultimately better to tell them ahead rather than hiding it from them or lying that “they will get better soon” if it is improbable to happen. 

Vonne Solis

Vonne Solis is an author, grief advocate, healing practitioner and bereaved parent serving the bereavement community, with a special interest in helping newly bereaved parents and those who have lost a loved one to suicide.