How do I talk to a relative about their untreatable illness?

by Michael

Thank you for your careful thoughts. I appreciate how understanding you are after a loss.

I am considering my father-in-law's approach to death and how to help him. Would you be willing to offer your advice in this situation? I want to help him to accept the situation if he wants to talk. He and I have never talked deeply - indeed he doesn't seem to talk about his feelings.

I know he needs to be left to his own feelings. At what point, in your view, should one draw a terminally ill friend into a conversation about accepting death, and how?

Surely it is worth it for the survivors to know what the dying wishes are and what they feel? That the person dying has come to terms with their life is also a consideration. How do you do that?

Too many questions? Sorry.

Yours sincerely


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Nov 23, 2013
How to talk about terminal illness
by: Betty from Grief and Sympathy

Hello Michael

I am so sorry to hear of your father in law's illness. The first important thing to know is does he realise how ill he is and have the doctors said if this situation will be weeks or months? If he does know that his lifespan is short then I would suggest that many people consider this a privilege. It gives them the opportunity to tell their close friends and family what the relationships have meant to them. It also gives a chance to make amends if there has been an unnecessary falling out over trivia.

People who die suddenly are denied any chance of saying goodbye and expressing love to the family.

Talking to him about what he has achieved in his lifetime - what are his proudest moments may be a way to get him talking. Many terminally sick loved
ones want to talk about serious matters. They don't want to upset the family but welcome the chance to talk. Many friends are fearful of upsetting them but to discuss and cry on a friend's shoulder is support.

Talking about his wishes re funeral arrangements is also something many people have the courage to get involved with. Choosing the format for the
service whether celebration of the life, or formal church service.

The other consideration is his mental state. Is he lucid? Was he a depressive personality or has he coped with life's misfortunes well. Gently broaching the subject may open floodgates and he may be wanting to talk to someone who can cope emotionally. Not everyone is capable. He seems to be a lucky man that you care enough to do this and I send you my very best wishes ..


Dec 10, 2013
Thank you
by: Michael

Thank you, Betty, for those helpful thoughts.

The reaction to Nelson Mandela's death has been inspiring. I wish that the dancing, singing and celebration of a life was our culture's way of reacting to the natural ending of everyone's being.

My father-in-law is shy and uncomplaining. I feel he might have some things he might like to say, but he is staying strong for those around him, or is unable to put his emotion into words (the English reserve?). Perhaps he would rather not talk about it.

Your suggestions, Betty, are certainly good for me to consider. He is not depressed and has never has been.

It is lovely to have an extra place to communicate about this.


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How does grief affect the body?

by Meg

Since my husband passed away last year, I seem to be feeling so much more sick than usual. Will this go away?

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Mar 09, 2014
Grief and Anxiety - Health is Not Just Physical Sickness
by: Betty from Grief and Sympathy

The best place to start to try to answer this important query is to look at definitions.

The World Health Organisation definition is: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

Of the many definitions of grief, these are just a few: sorrow, sadness, pain, heartache, despair, anguish and the list goes on.

Therefore the idea that we should feel well whilst this turmoil of emotions, anxiety, loss of confidence, shock and numbness are going on is a lot to expect. Most of us get on with the routines of daily life as best we can and cope as best we can until tides change and the oceans are calm again.

When this calm begins varies enormously. We are so individual with such diverse lifestyles and support networks that no one can give a true answer.

Grief can upset our appetite, sleep patterns, our motivation to do any task. Many people shut themselves away from friends. This isolation can lead to depression. Tears are never far away and an important part of the healing process.

Grief has a profound effect on the body in many ways: lack of concentration can lead to more accidents.

When we are anxious and not eating well we are more prone to pick up infections.

Grief is not an illness or disease but when a person is in the early days or weeks of grief it would be an injustice to say they are in good health. There is certainly a lack of well being.

Have a look at some of my pages on looking after your health during grief:

Grief and Health

Tips for Relaxation

Some day this will change and you find yourself laughing again and enjoying your friends or childrens’ company. And then, you can tell yourself, I am in good health again.

Good luck on this journey back to your health.

Mar 09, 2014
Answer to "How does grief affect the body?"
by: Betty from Grief and Sympathy

How loss and shock created by the death of a loved one affects the body depends on age, general health and personality traits. Symptoms of any illness can become more severe. Also illness that had been under control and undiagnosed can surface following shock and anxiety.

A friend’s husband’s hair became grey days after the death of his brother and he was only in his thirties.

Another friend told me that she lost a son in a cycling accident when he was only 15 years old. She was in her mid 30/s and had her menopause due to the shock.

It is also common when one partner dies, especially when they are elderly, that the other partner may die in only a few weeks. This of course could be existing condition but the stress brought on by grief manifests itself in many ways.

Any concerns should always be discussed with your Doctor.

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How do others cope with early dementia in a husband ?

by M
(South australia)

My husband and I have been together for over 30 years. 10 years ago he suffered severe mental illness and made several suicide attempts. He underwent so many ect treatments and 3 years ago was diagnosed with dementia. He is still capable of doing most things for himself, but it's as if the on switch has gone off. My wonderful friend, lover, and support had changed so much. I feel very lonely. I find myself avoiding many things. Sometimes just doing the monthly accounts is the hardest thing in the world even though I always handled the practical things. Every now and then I'm struck down with inertia. It's grief, I guess. Wondered how others cope with this.

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Feb 20, 2014
Yes, grief is natural when a family member has dementia
by: Betty from Grief and Sympathy

We are so pleased that you felt able to write to us. This is a very good sign and you must also ask for help and support from others around you either family or friends. Don’t be afraid of all tears they are a natural part of distress.
Ask your doctor and health service in the area what facilities are available to you.
Yes, you are correct, you are also suffering from grief, grief for the loss of your partner’s help and support. You are becoming his sole help and support.
This is a difficult time for you coming to terms with the situation and coping on a day to day basis. Having been part of a couple for so long you now have to learn how to cope on your own with all major decisions. This is a huge learning curve. Talk to best friends, go out for meals with them. Do not try to be super woman. Ask for and accept help. You will cope, but make time for yourself. Visit friends, go for walks, continue with hobbies, go to a movie.
One of the hardest things is to be kind to yourself as you get involved with all the everyday mundane household tasks. Accepting what is happening and organizing your time is a huge step forward.
The panic you are feeling is natural. You are bound to doubt your ability to cope. Any change in our routines brings doubt and you are coming to terms with huge changes in your lifestyle.
Take each day at a time. Read the advice in our grief site and read my book for Alzheimer's Caregivers to familiarize yourself on changes that could occur.
You can only do your best, remember to do your best for yourself too. You need to keep well to cope with the challenges ahead.
Our very best wishes.

If any readers have experiences and advice to share please do also leave your comments.

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Caregiver Grief

by Debbie
(Virginia Beach, Virginia)

My sister in law was diagnosed with type 1 lung cancer. By the time she was diagnosed she had brain tumors. I took care of her from January this year until June when she passed away.

I thought watching her die a little each day was bad but my grief is worse. I don't eat well, I don't sleep well, I can't seem to remember little things that just happened.

Emotionally I can go from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes & the most frustrating thing is I don't have control of it, it has control of me.

I was hoping you can give me some advice on how handle the grief? Is it normal to experience all this? I have lost children, parents & grandparents but I never felt this grief before.

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Oct 18, 2016
Caregiver Grief is Very Real
by: Betty from Grief and Sympathy

Dear Debbie

Thank you for writing to us and we are so sorry to hear of your loss.

Your sister in law was very lucky to have you as her caregiver to look after her during her last weeks. You are very special to have done that for her.

The emotions you are feeling we call the rollercoasters, they are as you describe - not under your control. This is a normal grief reaction.

I have written a page on "What Does Grief Mean?" - this might help you to realize what is happening to your emotions and to understand. Understanding what is happening to you does give some comfort. During the grief process, we can often wonder if we are going mad, also wonder why we are feeling so physically ill. These are natural reactions to the loss of someone we cared about. She was obviously a friend and confidant, you cared for and saw her daily for a long time, so this is a huge loss. The time you spent caring for her was a long and important period of your life.

When someone is very ill we think we are prepared for their loss, but the grief when it comes is no less painful. It sounds as if you need someone who understands this painful time to talk to. Join a support group or talk to a good friend who will understand.

Yes, the pain does become easier to deal with, but it does take time to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. It also brings back the painful memories of you losing your mother and a child. Because you have already experienced grief, it does not make this loss less painful.

Read more of the grief pages and forum letters - it does help to realize that many people are feeling as you are and at this stage getting through each day is a major goal.

Try to keep busy, make yourself visit friends, it is so easy to dwell on these feelings when alone. It does help if you cry on a friend's shoulder. Do not be embarrassed by this, tears are a great healer.

Our very best wishes to you, you will cope, give yourself time, be kind to yourself. Your life is still very precious.

The Grief and Sympathy team.

Nov 11, 2016
Read more on Caregiver Grief
by: Lesley

Hi Debbie

Betty has written a new page on Caregiver Grief as a response to your question, and to help all those coping with this challenge.

You'll find it here:

Why is Caregiver Grief after Death Such a Shock?

All the very best


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