A life-limiting illness offers time to say goodbye. You can encourage the person with advanced cancer to share their feelings, and you can share your own in return. It is understandable that you might not know what to say or worry about saying the wrong thing. Ask the person if they would like to talk about how they are feeling. This can give you an idea of whether they are ready to talk about the situation—they may be avoiding the topic for fear of upsetting you.
Some people who are dying refuse to acknowledge it or may seem to be in denial. This might be because they prefer to focus on the present moment. If you find this upsetting, it may help to talk it over with the social worker on your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
You can ask the person with advanced cancer if they want to visit a special place or contact someone they’ve lost touch with. They may also appreciate help creating a legacy, such as documenting their life in some way, creating a memory box of keepsakes, or writing letters to family and friends. One option is to create an “emotional will”, a document that shares their thoughts with their family and friends.
You can download the Groundswell Project’s Emotional Will and Death Checklist from their website.
Some carers experience anticipatory grief. This is the grief you feel when you are expecting the death of someone close to you. You may feel sad, down and depressed or become anxious and concerned for your family member or friend. Or you may find yourself preparing for the death and beginning to think about what life might be like once they are gone. It is common to have thoughts such as: “How will it be when they are not here? How will I cope on my own?”
A long illness can give family and friends time to slowly get used to the person dying, to say what they want to say or to share memories.
Having time to grieve doesn’t necessarily make the loss of the person easier to cope with once they have died. Sometimes the experience of anticipating the death and spending a lot of time caring for the person actually makes you become closer to the person, and you feel intense grief when they die.
There are many services available to help with the practical and legal aspects of the person’s death. You can read more about these services in the Facing End of Life booklet – contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit your local Cancer Council website. You can also talk to the social worker on the palliative care team.
After the person dies, you may feel a range of emotions, including:
- numbness and shock, or a sense of disbelief, even if you thought you were prepared.
- relief that the person is no longer in pain.
- shocked that you feel relieved to be free of the burden of caring and can now make plans for your future.
- anger towards the doctors or the hospital, your god or the person for dying.
- guilt about things you did or didn’t do, about not being there at the time of death, or about how you are feeling.
All these reactions are common. Feeling relief or guilt is not a sign that you didn’t care. These emotions may come and go and change in intensity over time. Support groups (face-to-face, telephone or online) or counselling can help you get through times when your grief seems overwhelming.