What to say to someone with a terminal illness
The idea of a terminal illness – an illness that cannot be cured and is likely to lead to someone’s death – can feel scary or unfamiliar. It can feel hard to know what to say, either because you just are not sure or for fear of saying the wrong thing. In this section, we offer some tips around what to say to someone with a terminal illness.
Be led by the person living with a terminal illness
You do not have to be the one to lead the conversation. They will show or tell you what they feel comfortable talking about, and what they’d rather not. And if you are not sure, you could ask, ‘Is there anything you do not want to talk about?’
Try not to avoid the topic of terminal illness
You may feel awkward asking about their terminal diagnosis, especially if they do not bring it up either. But it’s usually better to acknowledge it and check in with them – they will tell you if they are not ready to talk about it.
You could start by asking very open questions to get the conversation going. For example, asking, ‘How are you feeling?’ or even ‘Do you feel up for talking about the diagnosis?’
It’s okay to admit if you do not know what to say or how to say it. You’re still offering support by having the conversation and being there for that person. For example, you could say, ‘I’m not sure what the right words are, but I want to let you know that I’m here for you.’
If the person feels comfortable, you may even be able to ask questions or find out where you can get more information about their diagnosis or illness.
Try to avoid giving advice or comparing experiences
It might be tempting to try and ‘fix’ the situation, or share your own, similar experiences or those of someone else you know. But this is the time to listen, acknowledge and try to understand their feelings and experience. You could say, ‘I cannot imagine how this must feel for you’ or ‘It sounds like it’s been a really difficult time.’
Keep sharing things about your life
You may feel that whatever’s happening in your life, including any problems, is nothing compared to what someone with a terminal illness is going through. But sometimes people living with a terminal illness may feel cut off from everyday life, so sharing your stories might help them feel more connected.
If you’re unsure whether this would be helpful, you can always check with them first. For example, you could ask, ‘What do you feel like talking about today?’ or ‘Do you mind if I share something about [what’s happening] with you?’
Be prepared for their reaction
The person who is ill will probably have lots of emotions about their diagnosis, and the good and bad days that come with that. They may seem different to you, or react in a way you would not expect. Be patient and try not to take any reaction personally. Remember that these conversations are about offering them support, and that might mean letting out all the emotions they’re feeling.
If you’re worried you have upset them or pushed the conversation too far, you could say, ‘I’m sorry I’ve said the wrong thing. Do you need some space?’
Read our blog What do you say when someone tells you they’re going to die?