Supporting and Grieving a Terminally Ill Loved One

02 Sep

Supporting and Grieving a Terminally Ill Loved OneBy Emily Long, LPC

Saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy. Watching a person fade away from a terminal illness is a complex and painful process. Often, it can seem as if the person you knew and loved is disappearing, little by little, as illness slowly overtakes his or her physical body.

The dying process can be overwhelming, confusing, and riddled with heartbreak, guilt, and uncertainty.

How do you make sure you are giving your dying loved one the support he or she needs?

How do you grieve while taking care of him or her?

How do you have the time and energy to live while saying goodbye?

How do you balance supporting your loved one while also supporting yourself?

The tendency in caregiver supporter positions is often to deny the need to grieve the pending loss in order to put everything into caring for the dying person. However, allowing oneself the space and time to grieve for a loved one throughout this process is essential for the well-being of everyone involved.
When we don’t allow ourselves the space to grieve, we create disconnection both within ourselves and with our loved one. Unacknowledged or unaddressed grief can become a barrier to being fully present and connected with your loved one in the final weeks and days of his or her life.

Balancing the need to support your terminally ill loved one while also allowing yourself time and space to grieve can be tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. You Are Allowed to Take Time for Yourself

Many caregivers experience guilt when they take needed time for themselves during the course of their loved one’s illness and dying process.

Too often, caregivers exhaust themselves spending every moment caring for their loved one without also taking care of their own physical or emotional health. Taking time for self-care during this process can be challenging, but it is necessary.

Not caring for your own physical health could mean compromising it and being unable to be with your loved one, thus losing precious time with him or her. Ignoring your emotional health may lead to conflict, upset, and disconnection created by the unacknowledged need to grieve. This discord might flare up between you and your dying loved one, between you and other family members, or between you and medical providers, potentially making the process even more challenging.

Giving yourself permission to take time for yourself and your needs can be hard, but it can also greatly improve the precious time you have left with your loved one.

2. You Are Allowed to Ask for Support

Let’s face it: caring for a dying loved one is physically and emotionally exhausting, overwhelming, and painful. Even those of us with the best and healthiest relationships struggle to manage the demands of caregiving. For those of us with more challenging relationships, those demands can feel that much heavier and more stressful.

The truth is we all need support to make sure everyone’s needs are being met as best they can be.

You are allowed to ask for help. You are allowed to ask others to assist you with caretaking tasks. You are allowed to ask others to give you breaks so you can rest or eat or have some fun. You are allowed to have emotional support for your own grief and stress.

3. You Are Allowed to Accept Others’ Offers of Support

One of the things I see happen the most when someone is caring for a dying loved one is refusing help and support that is offered. People sometimes feel that it’s their responsibility alone; it’s often said that “I have to handle it,” “I don’t want to bother anyone,” or, “I don’t want to be a burden to others.”

When help or support is offered, say yes. If someone offers to bring you a home-cooked meal, to take out the trash, to handle the laundry, to sit with your loved one for a while, to keep your kids for a play date, or anything of the sort, say yes.

But refusing help that is offered doesn’t help anyone.

When help or support is offered, say yes. If someone offers to bring you a home-cooked meal, to take out the trash, to handle the laundry, to sit with your loved one for a while, to keep your kids for a play date, or anything of the sort, say yes.

If people say, “Let me know how I can help,” let them know how they can help. Ask them to mow the yard, pick up the mail, clean the bathrooms, pick up groceries, or whatever it is that would feel supportive to you.

Give yourself permission to lean on those who love you as you care for your loved one. Allowing them to help with the smaller tasks of life can help give you the space and time to support your love one and to grieve.

Life can be challenging, but we’re all in it together. We all deserve support.


Related Continuing Education Courses


The annual number of deaths reported in the United States in the early part of this century was 2.4 million, about four per minute. The Grieving Self looks at the stories of a few of those who are recently bereaved to determine the major issues for those who grieve: aloneness, loss of self, social connections, anniversaries and holidays, self and others’ expectations, the need to continue living, ambivalence of recovery, grief dreams, medical problems. Studies are reviewed which indicate some researchers’ conclusions as to: 1) Gender differences between men and women who grieve; there are important questions regarding the recruitment of subjects and the data gathering process for gender differences research. 2) And, who among the grief survivors are best served by counseling and psychotherapy. This author, while agreeing with much of the research, challenges the belief that the emotional loneliness suffered by the bereaved is the single, major dynamic of the bereaved, and can only be alleviated through passage of time. It is felt that an effort to reconnect those who grieve to a stable sense of self can help the bereaved regain better function and reduce the length of the time they are consigned to painfully distressing lives.


Caregiver Help: Sex and Dementia explores how Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases impact the brain in ways that can cause some surprising, challenging and inappropriate behaviors. Some people with dementia may develop a heightened interest in sex – even to the point of aggression; experience a waning or complete loss of interest in sex; become addicted to pornography; lose the ability to understand what kind of behavior is acceptable; have a different perception of place and time and a different interpretation of reality from their caregivers; get agitated and upset when their caregivers don’t communicate with them effectively; and behave in ways that are confusing and upsetting to family members and professional healthcare workers. Even so, the patient deserves to be treated with respect and every effort should be made to maintain their dignity.


Dying isn’t a subject that Americans like to think about. Our national character is vibrant, optimistic, life-affirming. These qualities have been a great advantage to us as a people, but they have a down side. They make us less inclined to think about the inevitable sad events such as death. Consequently, we are often less prepared for it, psychologically and otherwise, than people in other cultures. The “Butterflies are Free” program was designed by the Staff Associates at Life Care Center in Sarasota, FL to help overcome this problem and to enable healthcare workers and come to prepare for an ill person’s passing. This course presents a case study which reveals how the Life Care Center created and implemented an effective End-of-Life program for their residents. The purpose of this course is to introduce the history, ideals, and practices behind the program in the hopes that it may be adopted in other nursing home facilities.


The emotional stress of caring for persons who are aging, chronically ill or disabled can be debilitating for family members as well as professional caregivers. This course addresses caregiver depression and grief and provides a three-step process that can help develop an attitude of creative indifference toward the people, situations and events that cause emotional stress. It offers suggestions for dealing with preparatory grief, an experience shared by families and professionals as they cope with the stress of caring for someone who will never get well. In the process, it also explains the differences between reactionary depression and clinical depression. By gaining insights into the process of losing someone over an extended period of time, the mental health professional will be in a better position to understand the caregiver’s experience with depression and grief and provide both empathy and strategies for implementing a self-care plan. This course includes downloadable worksheets that you can use (on a limited basis) in your clinical practice.

Professional Development Resources is approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) to sponsor continuing education for psychologists; by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) to offer home study continuing education for NCCs (#5590); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB #1046, ACE Program); the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (#PCE1625); the Florida Boards of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy, and Mental Health Counseling (#BAP346) and Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); and the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678).


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Posted by on September 2, 2015 in General


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