Listen With Your Heart

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Facing the final stage of life

Some people have cancer that no longer responds to treatment and must face the fact that they will soon die. This is scary for the person who is sick and for those around them. The person with cancer may be in pain, may be bedridden, may be able to walk only a few steps, or may be confused. It’s hard to watch someone you love go through this process of decline.

Being there

No matter how hard it may be, it’s still important to try to be there for the person with cancer. They may feel lonely even if there are people around. This is because the people nearby may not be really in tune with what’s going on with the person. You can be the one who is in sync with your loved one every step of the way. Just by staying close and listening with a smile or gentle touch, you show you are there. It takes courage and extra energy to do this.

Sometimes the person with advanced cancer may pull away from people and seem to be withdrawing as death nears. This is natural and is one way of disconnecting from life. This process and what you might expect at this time is described in our information called Nearing the End of Life. The best thing you can do at this time is take the person’s cue – simply stay in the background and be available. Try not to take this withdrawal personally or feel hurt when the person pulls away. It likely has nothing to do with you.

Talking about death and dying

Many people worry about what to say when a person talks about dying. But this is a common topic when facing cancer. Some people want to talk about the dying process – they want to know what to expect. Some want to make sure that their wishes are followed when it comes to death – they want to be sure that machines are not used to keep them alive. Some want to know how they will die, and ask, “What will happen when I’m actually dying?” For answers to these questions and concerns, it helps to find experts in hospice care or care of the terminally ill. If you don’t know the answers to specific questions, you can say, “I don’t know, but we can call some people who can help us with those answers.” These professionals can guide you and the person with cancer by helping figure out things like living wills and advance directives and explaining the things that might happen as death gets closer.

Hospice staff members are used to answering these questions, and they are skilled in doing it in a supportive, caring way. Hospice gives expert, compassionate care for people with advanced disease. If you would like to read more about end-of-life issues or hospice care, please see our documents called Nearing the End of Life and Hospice Care. We also have information on living wills, advanced cancer, and caring for the cancer patient at home. (See the “To learn more” section.)

You may be asked, “Why is this happening to me?” It’s very hard to hear this question because there is no answer. And it’s heart wrenching to feel the pain that lies within questions like this. In most cases, the simple answer is “I don’t know.” Holding your loved one’s hand and letting them cry or talk about their sadness and regrets is the best you can do. Allowing a person to do this is a true help because many people avoid the subject of dying and won’t allow themselves to share this pain.

Some people who know they’re going to die feel the need to get some things off their chests. They may want to talk about some of the things they did in their life that they’re not proud of or that they regret. They may want to apologize for these things. They may want to give you advice about the lessons they learned or instructions about what to do for them in the future. Respectfully listening and, of course, offering forgiveness and a loving attitude are often all that’s necessary. There are no magic words for the dying person, but often your presence is all that’s needed, and having an open heart is priceless.


Last Medical Review: 06/09/2014
Last Revised: 06/09/2014