Helping you get through tough times

When a parent has a terminal illness

It can be very difficult when a parent is diagnosed with terminal illness. You might feel overwhelmed by what it means and how it’ll affect your family.

It can be one of the hardest things any family goes through, but there are things you can do to help you manage.

Learn about your parent’s conditionblue flower close up

One thing that can help is learning about the condition your parent has.

Find out what their illness means, the treatment they’re going through and what changes they are likely to go through as their condition develops.

When we don’t know what’s going on, we can fill in the gaps with guesses about what’s happening. This can leave us feeling confused, unsure, and more worried.

Learning about their condition will make you more aware of what to expect in the future. This can help you to prepare for what’s to come.

If you’re looking at information online, remember that symptoms described are often worse case scenarios.

For information specific to your parent, talk to their doctor.

Many illnesses have their own not-for-profit organisations or support groups, which can be a great source of support and information.

Talk to someone

It can be beneficial to talk to someone about what you’re experiencing. This can include talking to either of your parents about worries, or even reminding them that you love them.

Maybe try talking to a friend about what’s going on.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking with friends or family members, try out a support group or maybe a counsellor. Check out face-to-face help for more information.

Discussing death

Talking about death with anyone is difficult. It’s even harder when it involves one of your parents.

However, talking about it can be very beneficial and therapeutic.

Honest and open discussion with your parent can help them feel more at ease. It can let them know you’re aware of what to expect and how you feel.

There may be things about death your parent would like to talk to you about, but are afraid to bring up.

While not everyone will be ready to talk about it just yet, there are some things you can do to make it easier.

Look out for opportunities

The topic of death might come up in anther way, maybe after watching a movie, or after reading a book where someone dies. Use this as a tool to bring the conversation up.

Approach the topic slowly

If you’re nervous, try asking simple questions first, such as: “how can I help?” or “how are you feeling?”.

Share your own views

Sharing your views and opinions can help when discussing death.

Check out communication for tips on discussing difficult topics with family members.

Do something enjoyable

During this time it’s important to have fun, both with your parent and on your own. This can give you a break from some of the seriousness and sadness surrounding the illness.

Doing fun things with your ill parent, even just hanging out, can help you continue creating memories.

As their illness progresses, your parent may not be able to do certain activities and this can be difficult to cope with.

Remember, it’s not because they don’t want to spend time with you, just that their illness is limiting them from doing certain things.

By learning about their illness you can find other activities they’re still able to enjoy.

Take care of yourself

While it’s a stressful time and you probably want to do everything you can to help, be sure to give yourself breaks as well. It’s important you continue doing activities you were doing before.

Try to maintain a balance between spending time with family, and spending time doing enjoyable activities and just hanging out with friends.

Have a look at minding your mental health for activities that can help at this time.

Coping with the illness as it worsens

If your parent gets so sick that it’s hard for them to stay at home they may be moved to a hospice. A hospice is a home for terminally ill people.

They have staff to look after people 24 hours a day to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible.

It can be difficult to see your parent hospitalised, or moved to a hospice; but try not to be afraid to visit them. Keep in mind they won’t feel their best. They may be in pain and may not seem like themselves.

If you’re worried about visiting try talking to someone about your worries. Again, learning about the illness can help you know what to expect when you arrive at the hospital.

If your parent is in hospital or a hospice, there are likely to be nurses or social workers around. They might be able to explain what’s going on and what to expect. This can make your visits more positive.

Mixed feelings

As your parent’s condition changes you may begin to experience mixed feelings. For example, part of you might wish that they’d pass, because it’s too difficult seeing them like this or because it’s all so draining on you.

This could lead to guilt or resentment.

It’s understandable to have thoughts and emotions like this. It’s hard to see a parent suffer. While you don’t want to lose a parent, you don’t want their suffering to continue either.

This can be a time of increased tensions within the family. Try talking about what’s going on, and do more enjoyable activities together as a family.

Ongoing grief

If your family has known in advance about your parent’s illness being terminal, it’s likely you’ll start experiencing symptoms of grief even before they pass.

This is called “anticipatory grief”. It can include feelings of sorrow, anxiety, anger, acceptance, depression and denial.

Saying goodbye

A benefit of knowing in advance that someone will pass is that it gives you a chance to say things you’d like to say.

It gives you time to talk about things with your parent, to say you love them, and let them know how you feel.

This can give you peace of mind that when they pass away, you’ve had the chance to properly say goodbye.

When your parent passes

When your parent does pass, like the rest of the journey, this time can be difficult. Again you may have mixed feelings.

It’s normal to feel a whole range of emotions such as sadness, anger or even relief that they are no longer suffering. It’s OK to feel any of these things.

The most important thing is to allow yourself the time to grieve. Don’t bottle things up or pretend everything is fine if it’s not. If you feel like you may need to talk to someone then do.

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This article was last reviewed on 26 March 2017

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