Saying Goodbye: How to Tell Loved Ones You’re Terminal

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| 3 min. read |

One of the hardest parts of having a terminal illness is telling those you love that they need to prepare themselves to say goodbye. Here are some tips on how to make it as pain-free as possible. 

“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

Being told you have a terminal illness is traumatic enough, but the realization that friends and family will need to be told is almost worse. 

Wondering how you should break the news? On the bright side, there is no right or wrong way, and many even report that by sharing, it brings a certain amount of acceptance and relief about their impending fates. has a few ideas on which path you can take if you're at a loss as to what to say. 

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Depending on the kind of person you are, you will use humor, dignity, courage or anger to tell those around you of your situation. Whatever personal feelings you harbor about what fate has thrown your way, no doubt be the predominant feelings you want to convey to help loved ones on the path to acceptance will be love and compassion.  

Methods of getting word out vary as much as approaches, but some of the most common, and well-tested, include telling one trusted family member or friend and asking them to spread the word for you, meeting with loved ones individually to tell them about your situation, holding a group meeting to get the news out to everyone at once or asking a medical professional or social worker to speak to your family and friends on your behalf. 

When my step-father found out he had terminal cancer, he used his usual good-humor and kindness. He said he was sick and that the doctors told him he wasn't long for this world, but that he planned to go out with a whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It's how I often remembered him when he was well, and the image, despite knowing he was so sick, was oddly comforting. 

Reactions from Loved Ones

No one wants to receive bad news, but news of this kind hits people in all kinds of ways. Many people react poorly as they simply don't know what to say or do. Some will cry, others will go quiet or into denial, and others still will want to be the go-to person that helps you in whatever ways they can. 

In order to help them come to grips, you may want to designate different loved ones for different needs. Giving people a “job” gives them a purpose and allows them to feel like they are doing something positive. It also can help alleviate awkwardness for those who simply can't stop putting their foot in it. 

Things you Can Ask For

You may not know exactly what you want from those around you, especially as your condition deteriorates, but people in your world will be glad to have an idea of things that would please you. 

Designating a person or two to just sit with you quietly and hold your hand, paint your nails or gently massage you on tough days is one idea. Talk about your illness when you want to those who can take it and talk about anything else to those who can't. You know who falls into these categories. Use them to help you on the emotional roller coaster you are on. 

On a more practical note, ask for help doing life's little chores. If you're able, ask a friend to walk to dog with you, or to look after your kids for a few hours. Ask them to join you in activities you can enjoy outside the house, even if it means just sitting on a bench watching the world go by. People will want to be there for you. Let them! 


This is a sticky wicket no matter how you look at it. Children do need the truth, but without too much detail. Its best to just say that you're very sick and that the doctors don't think they will be able to help you get better. The child may have questions, but more often than not, they will need time to process. 

Don't be surprised if a few days or weeks later they ask if you're going to die. At this point, be honest, and tell them the truth. It's ok to cry or be sad, just assure them there is nothing wrong with having these feelings, and if they feel sad or scared, that they can come talk to you. 

It's also a good idea to alert their school, so if they begin to behave differently, teachers will have a heads up as to why. 

If you just can't bring yourself to do it, and you don't trust any close to do it sensitively, hospice carers are great at explaining what is happening in a non-scary way. 

Whatever you decide, remember, these decisions are yours to make. No one ever wants to say goodbye, but having ideas on how you'd like your loved ones to find out may help make it easier for you, and them, to handle. 



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