Terminal Illness

Terminal Illness

When you find out that you’ve got a terminal or life-threatening illness, there are massive feelings of powerlessness and uncontrollable emotions. Most of us never really think about our own deaths or those of people close to us. The shock of having to suddenly confront this can be really hard to deal with.

Everyone has their own way of coping and handling things but most people do tend to go through a similar range of feelings.

Understanding what you or someone close to you is going through can help you cope better with the situation. It also gives an opportunity, however painful, to plan, prepare and say goodbye.

The main stages you could experience are:

Shock and disbelief

Your first reaction will probably be that it’s all some terrible dream and that you’ll wake up and it will all go away. This is a totally normal feeling and it can last quite a while.


After the initial shock wears off, lots of people move into denial. This can be both the person with the diagnosis, and friends or family who are affected by it. They may just carry on with their lives, convincing themselves that nothing is wrong. This stage can actually be a good thing. It gives you time to come to terms with what is happening and acts as a way of coping with the major feelings you’re having. Again, it can last some time and for some, refusal to accept that situation can last right up to the end.

Anger and grief

Accepting the diagnosis can sometimes cause people to lash out at those around them. This might be the doctor who is giving them the bad news or those that are caring for them on a daily basis. There can also be a strong sense of grief for what is lost – the years ahead as well as the healthy years in the past. It’s not only the person who is unwell – the carer may also experience these emotions, sometimes tinged with guilt or even relief that they themselves are not ill. This is all perfectly normal and sharp swings in mood are all part of the process of coming to accept what is happening.


It’s absolutely normal to be scared of death. People are also scared and afraid of the pain and symptoms of the illness that they or their relatives have been diagnosed with. This also means that sometimes other people don’t know what to say or how to act around people that are seriously ill or going to die. They say stupid or thoughtless things by accident, or they may avoid that person all together. In a way, sometimes it’s other people’s reactions that are the hardest thing to deal with, rather than the illness itself.

Speak to someone

If you are in this situation, or know someone who is, you need to talk about what’s going through your head. There’s bound to be loads of things you need to get off your chest. For some, this helps them to make positive plans for their own deaths, such as planning their own funeral. This isn’t morbid, but can help people feel more in control of what is happening to them. For others, it simply relieves them of some of the feelings that are going through. Talking about how you feel, showing that you want to listen and understand is one of the best ways of giving and receiving support. However, it can be very difficult to talk openly to each other, and it can be hard to know what to say. If you need to talk but can’t open up to those around you, call CALM where you can say what you like and they’ll listen to you. They can also help you find a way of speaking to those closest to you.