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When other people find out you are dying

Coping with cancer

This page has information about how your family and friends might react to knowing that you are likely to die soon. There is information on

 

How people may react

It is hard to predict how other people will react, and sometimes they may surprise you. Generally, the people who love you will feel as shocked and overwhelmed as you do. But they may try to keep their feelings to themselves so they don’t upset you. Some people may try to be cheerful, and pretend that nothing is wrong. This may hurt and make you feel as if they don’t care. You may want them to be more realistic and allow you to express your feelings. 

Anger 

You may feel angry if you feel that you can’t talk honestly and openly to the people around you. Some of your relatives may be angry, as if they feel you are giving up and not fighting the cancer hard enough. Or they may direct their anger towards the doctors or nurses, particularly if there are unanswered questions or concerns about the care you have received. This can be difficult to cope with if you feel very tired because of cancer and treatment.

People talking

It may help to understand that these reactions usually come from other people's own fears – either of death itself or of the emotions that talking about it may bring up. It isn’t likely to be because they don’t care about you or what you’re going through. The anger is because they are scared of losing you, not because they think you could change things if you tried harder.

Overprotecting you

Sometimes people try to be helpful, but are overbearing. They may want to protect you from everything, and jump up to help you every time you move. You may still feel quite well, but other people may act as though you can’t do anything for yourself. This can also make you feel frustrated or angry.

Shock

Remember that the people around you are likely to be in shock. They probably don’t quite know how to react. They may try to cope by keeping busy, rather than dealing with the pain of what your death means to them. It is important to try to be patient, and give people time to let things sink in.

You may find that you argue or have misunderstandings with your family and are not sure why. This often happens when everyone is under emotional pressure. You may all need to work together to find the best way to cope with what is happening.

Talking about difficult issues

It is very common in any family for some people to ask difficult questions that you don’t feel ready to answer. Other people may avoid the subject altogether. Within your family and close friends, try to give each other space to ask questions and to try to answer them as fully as you can. 

If you don’t feel comfortable answering your family’s questions, you could give your doctor permission to talk to them and explain what is going on. If you are a relative, you must give the person who has cancer time to talk to the doctor by themselves if they want to.

Who to talk to

Some people may lean on their friends for support more than family. Your family may not be nearby. Or you may not be emotionally close. You may just find it easier to talk to friends about your concerns. Friends can sometimes offer more practical advice and support than a close partner, children or other family members.

Scientists talking informally

Your close friends are likely to be keen to listen and support you where they can. Of course there may be some friends who won’t know how to respond to your news about dying. They may find it too difficult to know what to say, and may stop contacting you. This may be hard to bear, but it is possible that they just don’t know how to cope. For now, you may be better off leaving those friends to deal with things in their own way.

 

Your partner

If you have a partner, they will probably want to help and support you in the best way they can. Some people can naturally do this very well. But some may be too anxious to know what to do for the best. You will need to work out together what you need most. Don’t be afraid to ask. Most loving partners will be thankful for some guidance so that they can be more confident that they are really helping.

There may be times when you can’t be as intimate as you would like to be with your partner. There may be physical reasons for this. For example, cancer in your bones may mean you are physically very sensitive - even a gentle hug may hurt.

But it could also be that you feel sad and frightened. When this happens it is very natural to withdraw, and resist getting close to your partner. You may also worry that being intimate may release very intense, uncontrollable feelings. It may help to explain this to your partner if you can. Then they know a little about why you don’t feel able to be intimate with them.

Withdrawing from your partner may make you feel anxious and isolated. Just sitting holding hands, lying down together, or cuddling can be a great comfort to some couples during such difficult times. There is more information about the difficulties you may have with sex, sexuality and cancer in our coping with cancer section. This information is not specifically for people who are dying. But some of the information can help you and your partner feel more comfortable about showing your feelings physically.

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Updated: 4 March 2014