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Advice for telling family and friends that you have a terminal illness

Advice for telling family and friends that you have a terminal illness

It can be tough knowing how to broach the topic of life-limiting illness with friends and family who might not have been aware of the progression of your illness. This article might give you some ideas about how to talk to others about what is going on for you.

When you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, one of the first questions that can come up is ‘how am I going to tell my family and friends?’. Sometimes people are afraid of how their loved ones will react, or worried that they won’t be able to ‘hold it together’ while telling family and friends.

That’s why we’ve put together the following advice for people who have moved into the terminal phase of their illness.

1. Do it your way

Whether you’ve been ill for a long time or you’ve only recently started having symptoms, hearing that your illness is terminal can come as a shock, both to you and your loved ones.

There is no right or wrong way to tell people. You’ll have different relationships with your family and friends, so you might want to broach the subject with them in different ways.

With some people, you might want to sit down and have a serious talk over a cup of tea; with others you may want to mention it when you’re doing something together like watching TV so that you have somewhere else to put your focus if you need. Alternatively, you might want to contact some people via email or social media.

The most important thing is to do what feels right for you, and remember that you don’t have to talk to everyone in the same way.

2. Take the pressure off 

You don’t have to tell people right away. Take your time, and don’t feel that once you’ve told one person everyone else has to know immediately.

It can sometimes be helpful to tell someone you trust and ask them to be your ‘spokesperson’ so that you don’t have to talk to everyone individually right away. This way you can open up a conversation without having to be bombarded with everyone’s questions and responses straight away.

3. Be honest

As is the case with most difficult conversations, honesty is usually the best policy. You don’t have to know all the answers, and you don’t have to put on a brave face.

Try not to have set expectations of how the conversation will go, or how you will feel. It can be tempting to back away or play down your concerns if you’re worried about making a fuss, but it’s important for your loved ones to understand what’s going on. You may actually find the act of opening up liberating.

It can sometimes help to acknowledge that it’s a difficult subject to talk about. You might find your loved ones try to avoid the topic; using phrases like ‘I know talking about this is hard’ or ‘Do you think we ought to talk about…?’ can help ease their resistance.

4. Remember it’s ok to not be ok

Living with a terminal illness can bring up all sorts of emotions – and often unexpected ones. It’s ok to not be ok, and it’s ok to let people know that.

Sometimes we don’t want to answer people’s questions, and it’s ok to let them know that. Other times, a in-depth talk about what’s going on is exactly what we need.

Don’t be put off if you find your loved ones don’t react as you expect, or don’t seem to want to talk about it. It can be hard for them to acknowledge that this is happening, and they may need some time to process. If it doesn’t work first time, try again in a day or two.

Telling children and teenagers

It’s one thing telling adults, but sometimes telling children and teenagers can seem even harder. What you tell a child will depend on how old they are and much they understand serious illnesses.

A child walking with an adult outside

The main thing to remember is that generally children want adults to be honest. So it’s important to give them an accurate picture of what’s happening. If you hide things from them, they’ll probably find it hard to believe you – both right now and later.

Children who aren’t told enough may also feel angry that they are being excluded.

Children tend to have a lot of questions, and unlike many adults, they often don’t hold back in asking them. Remember that it’s ok not to know all the answers. Tell them you’ll try to find out the answer and let them know.

Teenagers will most likely understand more and may want to talk in-depth about your illness. But they might not want to talk at all and it might even seem like they don’t care at all. Try not to take this personally – it will just be their way of coping.

To read about how to use books to broach the topic of dying with children and teenagers, click here