How to Both Support and Grieve a Terminally Ill Loved One

daughter kissing aging motherSaying 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.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Jayla

    August 31st, 2015 at 8:58 AM

    You might not feel that it is the right thing to do to take some time for yourself, but I promise you that you will feel much more up to the task if you are willing to take a little bit of a time out for yourself every now and then. You are doing the right thing by taking care of you too, because if you don’t you will feel burned out pretty quickly.

  • virginia

    August 31st, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    You cannot always feel as if you have to play the role of the martyr. I know that you would want to do everything for your loved one, but there are going to be some times when you have to take a little time for you and let others around you help you out some. Remember that they want to find a way that they can contribute too, so shutting out everyone is not going to be beneficial for any of the family and friends who wish to stay involved.

  • Robbie

    August 31st, 2015 at 2:22 PM

    My brother will never tell me what he needs me to do to help and then he goes around bad mothing me telling other people that I won’t step up and help him out with mom.
    How am I supposed to know what he wants me to do unless he tells me?

  • Spencer

    September 6th, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    It can open up a lot of old wounds in a family can’t it?

  • Greg

    September 7th, 2015 at 5:21 PM

    I suspect that just as there are help groups for those who have an illness there are also support groups for the family members who are helping them through this time .

  • Cinnamon B

    September 7th, 2015 at 9:06 PM

    Im having an issue with my mother in law…. my husband had a severely bad car accident and he’s supposedly goin to be a quadriplegic and his mom had made herself his poa and keeps trying to control his visits from me (not sure why) but he cant talk or write due to him being on a ventilator… and she’s doing everything in her power to keep me outta the picture because all she sees is $$$$ do anybody know someone or way I can get someone to look into this matter…. Please HELP me HELP him

  • Dell

    September 8th, 2015 at 2:33 PM

    It is important to make time for all of it, a time to process your grief as well as a time to hold their hand and support the one you are losing.

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