How to tell family and friends about terminal illness


The shock of a terminal diagnosis can have a huge emotional impact on your loved ones. Paul Hensby looks at how best you can help them come to terms with your prognosis. 

Coping with the news from your doctor that you have a terminal illness is a heavy burden to shoulder.

Your prognosis will no doubt scare you and you'll have feelings that the time you have left is too brief and is unfair. However, you are likely to be less upset than those who love you!

Having medical confirmation about the outcome of your illness can, in some instances, be liberating. It can take away the uncertainty and allow you to focus on the needs of your loved ones and how THEY receive the news. There is no easy way to communicate such unpleasant news but these conversations can be hugely beneficial - for you and for them.

The easy thing to do when faced with such an emotive issue is to go on as if nothing has happened. Of course, this only postpones the inevitable and you must, at some point, sit down and explain your prognosis. The longer you leave that conversation the more of an issue it can become.

Planning what to say and to whom

Many people find making lists a good way of planning, so list those people you want to tell, and those you want to know… these will be separate lists.

You know better than anyone else how your relationships work and whom you need to talk to in person, particularly those closest to you in terms of relationship and physical distance. For those you are less close to there are other ways of passing on your news. Although it may feel convenient and less stressful to email or text the news, for the recipient it is likely to cause more stress than a conversation. For those you want to know, but not necessarily tell face to face due to the relationship or distance, you should consider using your closer family and friends as proxies, in other words, asking them to inform the third parties.

Of course, the people who love you will be upset and shocked. Some will keep their feelings to themselves so they don’t upset you. Others may try to be cheerful, and pretend that nothing is wrong. Everyone will want to know how you are coping with the news, so it’s important to be honest, to show your emotions and also your strength and understanding of the situation.


Be wary of anger, especially if you feel that you can’t talk honestly and openly to those you want to tell because of their emotional state or extreme anxiety. Some of your loved ones may also be angry at the news that they are losing you, and the unfairness of death coming too early. Alternatively, they may direct their anger towards your medical professionals. Try to be the calming influence.


Most people will tell you what they think you want to hear. Anticipate this and stress that you want them to be honest, and tell them your thoughts and emotions before they respond. Sometimes people try to be helpful and will want to see you more often than previously, and do things for you, which you’re capable of doing for yourself. Be firm and polite in telling them what they can and cannot do to assist you. It will help them come to terms with the situation if you let them help you, or visit you more often.

The elephant in the room

Some people won’t know how to respond to the news that you’re dying. They may not know what to say, or they may be too upset to see you, and so they’ll stop contacting you. Don’t be upset or disappointed; just leave those friends to deal with things in their own way. Remember that the people around you are likely to be in shock. So be patient, and give them time for the news to sink in.

You may argue more with your close family and friends due to the emotional pressure. Again, understanding and honesty is the best way to counter this.

Sometimes people will ask you questions which you can’t or don’t want to answer. If you don’t feel comfortable answering your family’s questions, give your doctor permission to talk to them.

Your partner’s role is particularly important. Most partners will give you the help and support you need very well, but some may be too upset and worried to know what to do for the best. You will need to work out together what you need most.

Changes in your relationship

When the upset and sadness is worrying you both, the relationship – emotionally and physically – will change. Don’t withdraw from your partner, as this will make you both feel anxious and isolated. Just sitting holding hands, lying down together, or cuddling can be a great comfort.

Choose those closest to you to involve in creating a death plan. The process of identifying how you want to be helped as the end nears can be healing for all involved; confronting issues around your mortality empowers and enable you to discuss things in the open. It is a good way of showing you have come to terms with the news, and that you want to reduce the sadness and anxiety of those around you.

Final Choices has created a death plan template to help you ensure that, if possible, you have the death you want, with the people you want to be there at the end in attendance. By using this template you can have confidence that you have properly planned and taken away the power of the taboo - allowing you to live out your final weeks in the way that is important to you!

Writing a death plan

Writing a death plan

A death plan allows you to relieve the burden of decision making from the shoulders of those you love and creates the opportunity for a peaceful end of life.


Tags: terminal illness Death plan death plan template

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