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Emotional and spiritual concerns

As you approach the end of life, you may struggle with talking about death and dying, and finding hope and meaning. This section offers ideas for starting conversations, and managing emotional and spiritual needs.

Talking about dying

Most people avoid talking about death or dying – and when they do, they may use different words, such as “passed away”, “departed”, “gone” or “slipped away”.

It’s up to you when, or even if, you tell those around you that you’re dying. Take what time you need, but delaying the conversation usually doesn’t make it any easier. It may help to be in control of what information is given out and when, rather than people hearing the news from others or guessing what is going on.

You might find it easier if you practise what you will say. Sometimes family members may seem more distressed than the person with cancer, which can be hard to cope with alongside your own emotions.

Explain to family and friends how much or how little you want to talk about dying, and any other practical or legal issues you want to discuss. 

Why it can help to talk

There may be days when you feel like talking about approaching the end of life, and days when you don’t. This may even change from minute to minute. In general, it can help to discuss your fears and concerns about death with trusted family and friends. When you share how you think and feel with people you trust, it can help support all of you through the sadness, anxiety and uncertainty.

Some people dying with cancer have said that the process can feel isolating and lonely, even with a stream of visitors. This is particularly true if family and friends avoid talking about what is happening. If you are comfortable with people acknowledging that you are dying with cancer, let them know.

When you don’t want to talk

You may find that you don’t want to talk about dying, or that you want to discuss it with some people but not others. You may be the type of person who would prefer to focus on making the most of the time you have left, rather than talking about death. In some cultures, people think it’s disrespectful to talk about dying, or they may feel that talking about death makes it happen sooner.

Everyone handles dying in their own way. If you don’t want to talk about facing the end of life, your wishes should be respected.

The effect on people close to you

You may feel that the hardest part about dying is the effect it has on your family and friends.  Like you, they may feel shocked and overwhelmed when they find out cancer is at the end stage. They may:

  • offer to help in any way they can
  • express how much they care, be emotional, or want to spend more time with you or call you  more often
  • be overprotective, not wanting to leave you alone
  • refuse to believe the prognosis, saying things like “I’m sure you’ll get better” or “You’ll beat  this”, or suggest various forms of treatment or alternative therapies
  • tell the story of a friend or celebrity who experienced a miraculous recovery from something everyone had deemed hopeless and fatal
  • pull away and withdraw from your life
  • start to regard you as already gone.

Some reactions can feel surprising, frustrating or even hurtful. But family and friends also need time to adjust to the news and come to terms with how they’re feeling.


The emotional support provided by partners can be vital. But partners can feel just as distressed and depressed as the person who is dying. Be open and honest about the roles you expect each other to play. Do you want a partner to be hands on with your care, or prefer that a health professional looks after you, especially in the end stages of dying? Does your partner want to care for you? Listening to what each other wants, or feels they can take on, may help you both cope better.

If you live alone

Some people may live alone or have little or no support from family or friends. They may be  living a long distance from anyone who would usually offer both practical and emotional support. If you live alone, you could seek assistance from:

  • your GP
  • the palliative care team
  • the local community health service
  • the local council
  • a church or other religious group
  • practical support services
  • Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Community palliative care services can help you stay at home for as long as possible. But at some point, you may need 24-hour care. This is usually available in a palliative care unit (hospice), hospital or residential aged care facility.

If your preference is to die at home, you will need support from family and friends, and ongoing visits by your GP and other health professionals. You may wish to consider using private nursing services, which can be expensive.

How to tell children

If you have children or grandchildren, telling them that you are dying will be difficult. There is no easy way to approach this conversation, but it is important to let them know what is happening.

Like adults, children of all ages need time to prepare for the death of someone close to them. It’s natural to want to protect children, but they will often sense that something has changed. Not sharing the prognosis can add to their anxiety – and yours.

Talking to children about death in an open way may help them to feel more comfortable spending time with someone who is dying. For older children, the chance to make amends for mistakes may be important.

How you tell children or grandchildren will depend on their age, but these suggestions may help:

  • It may be easier to have your partner or a support person with you when you have the initial discussion.
  • Be honest with children and explain the situation using straightforward words, such as “dying” and “death”. Avoid terms such as “pass away” or “going to sleep”, which can be confusing or alarming for them.
  • Keep your explanations as simple as possible, and be guided by their questions so you don’t offer more information than they may want or can handle.
  • You may ask children what they know about death and what they think it means. This can help you to clear up any misconceptions about death.
  • Depending on their age, children may benefit from seeing a counsellor or play therapist.

Download our booklet ‘Talking to Kids About Cancer’

Coping with change and loss

Finding a way to cope with knowing you are dying can depend on many factors, including your age, whether or not you have children, your relationships with a partner or family members, and your cultural or spiritual beliefs. It may also depend on how your family and friends cope with the news.

Everyone will find their own way to deal with the knowledge that they are dying, and at their own pace. There is no right or wrong way.

For some people, learning more about the physical process of dying can make it easier to cope. Others find it helps not to think too far ahead, but to focus on a month, a week or even a day at a time.

Finding hope

When you’ve been told that you’re dying with cancer, you may find it hard to feel hopeful. While it may no longer be realistic to hope for a cure, you can find hope in other things, such as sharing some special times with those you love.

Studies of people dying with cancer show that people’s hope can be maintained when their health professionals:

  • involve them in decision-making, especially about palliative treatment options and where they would like to die
  • reassure them that any pain and other symptoms will be well controlled.

Finding a balance between knowing that you are dying and still trying to live as fully as possible is sometimes called “living with dying”. This may mean focusing more on the present. You may find that some days it’s easier to achieve this than others.

Maintaining a sense of control

When you’re approaching the end of life, you may feel like you’ve lost control. One way to feel more in control is to make decisions about your current and future health care and medical treatment, and to record your preferences in advance care paperwork.

Loss and grief

Other losses and changes happen throughout a terminal illness – loss of work, loss of social roles, loss of friendships, loss of connection to community, and loss of independence. You will probably find it helpful to spend time grieving for these losses.

You might also experience preparatory grief, which means reacting to the impending loss of your life. You may grieve for events that you won’t be around for, such as marriages, graduations and new babies in the family. If you don’t have a partner or children, you may mourn the lost opportunity to have these relationships or experiences. You can also grieve for small pleasures such as not being able to have a morning cup of coffee or go for a walk in the park.

Gradually, you may feel less able to do things or you may lose interest in activities you previously enjoyed. For many people, this is a natural part of coming to terms with death. It may make you feel sad and very low, but you may also move towards a sense of peace.

People saying ‘You’ll get well’ makes me really cross. I know I won’t get well. I want to say, ‘I am going to die and don’t you dare deny me this business of dying’.” CATHERINE

Spirituality at the end of life

Spirituality is an individual concept. For some people, it means being part of established religious beliefs and practices, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Indigenous belief systems. For others, spirituality is expressed as a personal philosophy.

For many people at the end of life, spirituality is a source of comfort and strength. Others find their beliefs are challenged by their situation and no longer find comfort in their spirituality.

In some cases, people may embrace a belief system that they have not been interested in before or had abandoned many years ago. Although many people do look for meaning at the end of their life, others are not interested in spirituality.

Talk about what you need – It may help to discuss your thoughts and feelings with a spiritual care practitioner (pastoral carer or chaplain). A spiritual care practitioner is part of the palliative care team and has the expertise to discuss spiritual issues, whatever your beliefs. You may wish to discuss the meaning of life or your beliefs about death. A spiritual care practitioner can also provide companionship.

Following spiritual practices – Some people find comfort in prayer or meditation, and gain support from knowing that other people are praying for them or sending positive thoughts their way. Many religions have specific practices for when people are dying.

If you want to follow certain rites in a hospital or palliative care unit, it’s best to discuss this with the staff in advance. They will be able to help you find the space and time to do this, and your customs can often become part of your palliative care plan.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed July 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Jane Phillips, Head, School of Nursing and Professor, Centre for Healthcare Transformation, Queensland University of Technology and Emerita Professor Palliative Nursing, University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Prof Meera Agar, Palliative Care Physician, Professor of Palliative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, IMPACCT, Sydney, NSW; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; A/Prof Megan Best, The University of Notre Dame Australia and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Lauren Breen, Psychologist and Discipline Lead, Psychology, Curtin University, WA; David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar, Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Social Worker, One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy, NSW; Justine Hatton, Senior Social Worker, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Caitlin MacDonagh, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care, Royal North Shore Hospital, Northern Sydney Local Health District, NSW; McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer; Palliative Care Australia; Belinda Reinhold, Acting Lead Palliative Care, Cancer Council QLD; Xanthe Sansome, National Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kirsty Trebilcock, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA.

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