Coming to Terms with a Terminal Illness Diagnosis

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If you or someone you know was diagnosed with a terminal illness, you may be looking for wisdom about how to feel or react. The truth is, there is no one way to respond to receiving such news. This post outlines some common experiences among people who are coping with a terminal illness diagnosis and some strategies to help you cope.

How Does a Terminal Illness Diagnosis Affect a Person?

When someone receives a terminal illness diagnosis, their healthcare provider has given them a set amount of time they will live based on the specific health condition. For example, a person may receive a terminal cancer diagnosis and be told they most likely have three to six months to live.

Doctors can’t predict precisely how long a person will survive with a terminal illness, and many factors are at play, including treatment decisions and the course the illness takes. But hearing from a medical professional that death is imminent is likely to cause many emotions.

News of a terminal diagnosis can be devastating. It’s common for people who receive this diagnosis to be confused, angry, scared, overwhelmed, and upset. Along with the physical reactions a person has to their illness, they may experience psychological reactions. It’s important to respect your capacity for working through your emotions during this challenging time, and seek support when you need it.

Common psychological responses to receiving news of a terminal illness include:

  • Anger – A terminal illness diagnosis negates your life plans. It’s common to feel anger that you won’t get the previously envisioned time.
  • Fear – You may be frightened because what happens after death isn’t something we can study scientifically and, therefore, reminds us of the unknown. It’s common to be scared of things we don’t know much about.
  • Insomnia – You may experience trouble sleeping after a terminal illness diagnosis due to anxiety, fear, or depression.
  • Panic Attacks – Panic attacks have physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, trouble breathing, dizziness, shaking, and nausea. These symptoms come with an emotional sense of being detached from reality, losing control, or dying.
  • Anxiety – You may feel anxious, worried, or frightened about the end of your life and what it means for the people you’ll leave behind.
  • Depression – Experiencing depression after receiving a terminal diagnosis is fairly common. Feeling sad, down, “blue,” and losing interest in activities you used to derive pleasure from could be signs of depression.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD may occur after receiving a terminal illness diagnosis. PTSD involves flashbacks of the event (in this case, thoughts of the terminal illness), avoidance behaviors, exaggerated startle responses (jumping at small noises), or hypervigilance

No matter which emotions you process through, it is important to remember your support system during this time and utilize resources to deal with some of these challenges. It may be a good idea to look into a support group for people familiar with what you’re going through or seek individual counseling to support you and help you navigate your emotional responses.

Coping With Terminal Illness

Receiving a terminal illness diagnosis can trigger grief because you’re mourning the loss of the life you thought you’d have. Some people experience grief in stages, such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acknowledgment. Others may experience grief in waves with a combination of these feelings.

Some mental health professionals find it helpful to look at the grieving process as a set of tasks, including accepting reality, processing pain, adjusting to the world with the diagnosis, and finding ways to make meaning as you carry on. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, but understanding you’re not alone can be comforting.

And while there’s no one way to cope with the news of a terminal diagnosis, we can offer some ideas to help you manage through the grieving process:

  • Research Responsibly – While you may be tempted to spend hours searching the web for information about your diagnosis, remember that not all sources on the internet are accurate or credible. It’s common to want more information. The internet is a great way to find support groups and other resources, but ensure that you’re being careful about the information you consume. When in doubt, call your doctor and ask.
  • Practice Letting Go – It’s normal to be stressed or overwhelmed after a terminal illness diagnosis because you wonder how you’ll accomplish your goals in a shortened amount of time. Maybe you had plans to work on your relationship with a relative, build wealth, or climb Mount Everest. Think about what’s truly important to you and see if you can let some of the other things go. Maybe it’s not worth the stress of contacting the estranged relative. Perhaps you’d rather read a book or watch a documentary of someone else who climbed Mount Everest because you were never particularly a fan of heights anyway. Let go of things you feel like you have to do just to say you did.
  • Focus on What Matters – What matters is unique to you. You don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s notions of what matters for your final moments of life. Follow your gut if someone tells you that something you want to do or accomplish isn’t worth it. There’s no correct way to handle the end of your life besides focusing on what matters to you.
  • Make Death Plans – Death plans include figuring out how you’d like your end-of-life care and funeral to go. Do you want to be in a hospice facility? Would you prefer to be at home? What kind of care would you like for your body after you die? Making plans for these things is essential but can be overwhelming. Consider consulting with a death doula, hospice worker, or grief specialist to discuss your options and ensure all the necessary legal documents and plans for your death are complete.
  • Express Your Feelings – If you feel comfortable talking to a loved one about the feelings you’re experiencing, do it. If you’d prefer to write down your thoughts and emotions, write poetry, make art, sing, or talk in a support group, do it. Expressing how you feel is critical to your mental health during this time.
  • Use Your Support System – Lean on your loved ones during this time. Cry, laugh, reminisce, do activities, or be together. Whatever makes you feel supported will help you cope with everything you’re going through.
  • Love Boldly – There’s no use hiding your feelings from people after a terminal illness diagnosis. Tell your loved ones that you love them frequently, and accept their words of love.
  • Enjoy Small Moments – As part of getting a terminal illness diagnosis, you’ll probably start to notice more of the little things. You may find yourself stopping to smell the roses more often. Notice and reflect on the small moments. It’s not necessary or helpful to try to force yourself to be happy. Instead, simply take one day at a time. If a day is too long to think about, take it moment by moment.
  • Seek Professional Help – If you find any of your emotions unmanageable or want to express concerns to someone other than your support system, consider seeking counseling. Some mental health professionals specialize in grief and bereavement and can assist you in coping with your terminal illness diagnosis.

Signs You Should See a Therapist

You don’t have to wait until you’re struggling to seek counseling. If you’re having trouble doing the things you want to do as a result of dealing with your terminal illness diagnosis, you may benefit from counseling.

Specifically, it’s a good time to seek professional assistance if you’re:

  • Having difficulty regulating your emotions
  • Avoiding necessary medical treatments
  • Disturbed by a nightmare or vivid intrusive thoughts
  • Not eating or sleeping well due to distress about your condition
  • Avoiding social interaction
  • Feeling hopeless and having suicidal thoughts.

Therapy can help you deal with your emotions in more healthy ways and assist you in making plans for the end of your life.

How Counseling Can Help You Cope

Counselors tailor their treatment to your needs. Each person’s journey for coping with this situation is unique, so their course of therapy will be too.

Therapy for coping with terminal illnesses can:

  • Help You Understand – Your therapist will help you understand what your diagnosis means and what looking at the end of your life means for you.
  • Respect Your Decisions – Counseling doesn’t attempt to change your mind regarding your end-of-life care decisions and goals. Even if your therapist is of a different religion or culture than you, they will never impose their beliefs about what is wrong for you. They will help you in clarifying your wants and goals.
  • Practice Coping Skills – Your counselor can help you identify coping strategies that work for you and your specific situation. Perhaps due to your illness, you’re not physically able to engage in a particular activity that once brought you stress relief. You and your therapist can brainstorm ideas and formulate a plan for helping you do the things you want to do.
  • Provide Additional Resources – Your therapist can help you identify resources within your community that you may need to support you throughout your illness. These resources could include support groups, religious leaders/spiritual needs, cultural support, and family therapy.
  • Find Meaning – Your counselor can work with you to process the feelings when you think about your life and your terminal diagnosis. Making meaning doesn’t mean identifying why or how you received this diagnosis. Instead, it refers to looking at your life and cherishing your successes and relationships, and embracing your struggles as ways you grew.

All Counseling provides a therapist directory for people looking for mental health professionals, including grief and bereavement specialists. Filter your search by insurance accepted, treatment type, and more. If you or someone you know is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the directory can help you find a therapist who fits your needs.