Facing the final stage of life

Some people have cancer that no longer responds to treatment and must face the fact that they will probably die soon. This is scary for the person who is sick and for those around them. The person with cancer may be in pain, may be in bed, may be able to walk only a few steps, or may be confused. It is hard to watch someone you love go through this process of decline.

Being there

No matter how hard it may be, it is still important to try to be there for the person. The person with cancer may feel lonely even if there are people around. This is because the people nearby may not be really in tune with what is going on with the person. You can be the person who is in sync with your loved one every step of the way. Just by staying close and listening with a smile or gentle touch, you show you are there for your loved one. It takes courage and extra energy to be in this situation.

Sometimes the person with advanced cancer may pull away from people and seem to be withdrawing as death nears. This is usually a natural process and is one way of disconnecting from life. The best thing you can do if this happens is to take the person’s cue, and simply stay in the background and be available. Try not to take this withdrawal personally or feel hurt when the person pulls away. It likely has nothing to do with you.

Talking about death and dying

Many people worry about what to say when a person talks about dying. But this is something that commonly happens. Some people want talk about different parts of the dying process — they want to know what to expect. Some want to know how they will die, and ask, “What will happen when I’m actually dying?” For answers to these questions, it will help to find experts in hospice care or care of the terminally ill. If you don’t know the answers to specific questions, you can say, “I don’t know, but we will call some people who can help us with those answers.” These professionals can guide you and the person with cancer by explaining the things that might happen as death gets closer.

Hospice staff members are used to answering these questions, and they are skilled in doing it in a supportive, caring way. In many communities, hospice organizations give expert, compassionate care for people with advanced disease. If you would like to read more about end of life issues or about hospice care, please see our documents called Nearing the End of Life andHospice Care. We also have information on advanced cancer and caring for the cancer patient at home.

You may be asked, “Why is this happening to me?” It is very hard to hear this question because there is no answer, and it is heart wrenching to feel the pain that lies within such a question. This is a question where the simple answer is “I don’t know.” Holding your loved one’s hand and letting them cry or talk about their sadness and regrets is the best you can do. Allowing a person to do this is a true help because so many people avoid the topic of dying and won’t allow themselves to feel this pain with their loved one.

Some people who know they are going to die may feel the need to get some things off their chests. They may want to talk about some of the things they did in their life that they are not proud of or that they regret. They may want to apologize about these things. They may want to give you instructions about what to do for them in the future. Respectfully listening and, of course, offering forgiveness and a loving attitude are often all that is necessary. There are no magic words for the dying person, but often your presence is all that’s needed, and having an open heart is priceless.