When a Loved One is Terminally Ill

DOREEN was shocked when her husband, Wesley, only 54 years of age, was diagnosed with an acutely aggressive brain tumor. * Doctors gave him only a few months to live. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” she recalls. “I was totally numb for weeks. It felt as if it were happening to someone else, not to us. I was not prepared.”

Sadly, Doreen’s reaction is not uncommon. A terminal disease can afflict anyone at any time. Commendably, many willingly take on the task of caring for a loved one who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Yet, caregiving is a formidable challenge. What can family members do to comfort and care for their terminally ill loved one? How can caregivers cope with the range of emotions they may experience throughout the course of the illness? As death approaches, what can be expected? First, though, let us consider why caring for the terminally ill is a unique challenge today.


Medical science has changed the nature of dying. A century or so ago, even in more developed lands, the average life span was much shorter. People died quickly from infectious diseases or accidents. Access to hospitals was limited, and most people were cared for by their families and died at home.

Today, medical advances have enabled physicians to fight illness aggressively in order to prolong life. Diseases that would have ended a person’s life quickly in times past may now stretch out over many years. However, this extended life may not represent a cure. Patients often have severe infirmities that render them incapable of caring for themselves. Caring for such individuals has become much more complicated and demanding.

Consequently, more and more, death has moved from the home to the hospital. Most people  today are unfamiliar with the dying process, and few have ever actually witnessed someone dying. Fear of the unknown, then, may hinder or even paralyze a person’s efforts to care for an ill family member. What can help?


As illustrated in the case of Doreen, many people feel devastated when a loved one is diagnosed with a fatal illness. Amid intense anxiety, fear, and grief, what can help you to prepare for the road ahead? A faithful servant of God prayed: “Teach us how to count our days so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Yes, pray earnestly for Jehovah God to show you how to ‘count your days’ wisely so that you can use the remaining days with your loved one in the best possible way.

This takes good planning. If your loved one is still able to communicate and is willing to address the matter, it may be wise to ask him who should make decisions for him when he is no longer able to do so. Frank discussion about whether he wishes to be resuscitated, hospitalized, or submitted to certain treatments can minimize misunderstandings and feelings of guilt on the part of family members who are forced to make decisions for an incapacitated patient. Early and open communication allows the family to focus on providing care during the illness. “Plans fail when there is no consultation,” says the Bible.—Proverbs 15:22.


Usually, the caretaker’s primary role is to provide comfort. A dying person needs to be reassured that he is loved and not alone. How can this be done? Read or sing to the patient, choosing literature and songs that are upbuilding and enjoyable to him. Many people are comforted when a family member holds their hand and speaks softly to them.

It is often helpful to identify any visitors. One report states: “Hearing is said to be the last of the five senses to be lost. Hearing may still remain very acute although the [patients] may seem asleep so do not say anything in their presence you would not say to them when awake.”

If possible, pray together. The Bible relates that on one occasion, the apostle Paul and  his companions were under extreme pressure and were very uncertain even of their lives. What assistance did they seek? Paul entreated his friends: “You also can help us by your supplication for us.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11) A heartfelt prayer during extreme stress and serious illness is invaluable.


The very notion of a loved one dying is often distressing. No wonder, for death is unnatural. We were not designed to accept death as a normal part of life. (Romans 5:12) God’s Word thus calls death an “enemy.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) So a reluctance to think about the death of a loved one is understandable, even normal.

Nevertheless, anticipating what may occur can help family members to ease their fears and focus on making things as comfortable as possible. Some of the events that may take place are listed in the box “ The Final Weeks of Life.” Of course, not all these conditions occur in every patient, nor do they necessarily occur in the same order. Still, most patients experience at least some of these changes.

After the death of a loved one, it may be wise to contact a close friend who has previously agreed to help. Caregivers and family may need to be assured that their dear one’s trial is over and that he is no longer suffering. The Creator of humankind lovingly assures us that “the dead know nothing at all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5.


Relying upon God is essential—not only during the terminal illness of a family member but also during the grief that comes following death. He may assist you through the helpful words and deeds of others. “I learned not to turn anyone’s help away,” says Doreen. “In fact, the volume of help we received overwhelmed us. My husband and I unequivocally knew this was Jehovah saying, ‘I’m right here with you to help you through this.’ I will never forget it.”

Yes, Jehovah God is the ultimate Caregiver. As our Maker, he understands our pain and sorrow. He is able and eager to provide the necessary help and encouragement so that we can cope. Better yet, he has promised that he will soon eradicate death once and for all and resurrect the billions of humans who are in his memory. (John 5:28, 29; Revelation 21:3, 4) Then, all can echo the words of the apostle Paul: “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”—1 Corinthians 15:55.


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