We all know that death is a part of life. And yet when we learn that someone we care about is going to die, we are deeply shocked. When a friend, loved one, colleague, or neighbor is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the news is devastating. It’s possible there are treatments to prolong life or maybe there is nothing else the medical professionals can do. So how do you deal with the reality that a friend or loved one is going to die? How do you continue your relationship, dealing with your own emotions while extending support?

These are tough questions and they’re even more complicated because it is both the individual who is ill and their family who calls the shots. The physical symptoms and emotional state often define accessibility.

When a friend of mine learned she had a terminal form of cancer and nothing could be done, she stopped seeing anyone outside her family. From the time of diagnosis until her death ten weeks later, I was unable to speak with her or see her again. Her husband conducted communications through email; he was very good about keeping me informed and it was comforting to keep in touch. While I sent cards and notes, I always regretted that I did not have the chance to speak with her again. And yet I completely understood that her family had the right to those precious weeks for themselves.


Another friend has a terminal form of cancer for which there is currently no treatment. Her life expectancy is longer and with all the new cancer therapies, there may be new treatments in store. My friend is accessible when she feels well and withdraws when she doesn’t. It’s a real balance to maintain contact and enjoy her company without infringing on her privacy.


There are ways you can keep in touch and continue your connection:


  1. Emails, and even social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, can be easy ways to reach out as you won’t disturb the recipient and they can respond in their own way and in their own time. Check out the individual preferences.
  2. Handwritten notes and cards are a tangible way of showing you care.
  3. Phone calls and messages can keep you connected when you can’t visit in person. If they aren’t up to answering the call, leave a short and thoughtful voicemail, such as: “Hi, it’s Liz. Just checking in to let you know that I’m thinking of you.”
  4. Flowers or a plant are a thoughtful reminder that the recipient is cared for.


It’s most important to take your cues; just because someone is ill doesn’t mean they are housebound. Let them know you would love to join them for any of the activities you would normally enjoy together. And when they aren’t well, decide how you would be comfortable in supporting and helping them and their family. Your continued presence in their life may be the best tonic of all.


For more information on what to say and do during illness, check out How to Say It® When You Don’t Know What to Say: Illness & Death.


Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store. Click here to order.


Image: Flickr Creative Commons / Duncan~

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