Coping with change and loss

Finding a way to cope with knowing you are dying can depend on many factors, including your age, whether or not you have children, your relationships with a partner or family, and your cultural or spiritual beliefs.

Everyone will find their own way at their own pace. There is no right or wrong way. For some, learning more about the physical dying process can make it easier to cope. Others find it helps not to think too far ahead, but instead to focus on a month, a week or even a day at a time.

    − Holly Webber, ‘Living with death’, The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011

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Finding hope

When you’ve been told that you’re dying with cancer, you may find it hard to feel hopeful. While it may be unrealistic to hope for a cure, you can find hope in other things, such as sharing some special times with those you love.

Studies of people dying with cancer show that people’s hope can be maintained when their health professionals:

  • involve them in decision-making, especially about palliative care treatment options and where they’d like to die
  • reassure them that any pain and other symptoms will be well controlled.

Maintaining a sense of control

When people learn that they are approaching the end of life, they often feel like they’ve lost control. One way to maintain some control is to make decisions about your current and future medical treatment, and to tidy up unfinished business.

Finding a balance between knowing you are dying and still trying to live as fully as possible is sometimes called ‘living with dying’. This may mean focusing more on the present. You may find that some days it’s easier to achieve this than others.


Loss and grief

Other losses and changes happen throughout a terminal illness – loss of work, loss of social roles, loss of friendships, loss of connection to community, and loss of independence. A dying person often needs to spend time grieving for these losses.

You might also experience anticipatory grief, reacting to the impending loss of your life. People often grieve for events they won’t be around for, such as marriages, graduations and having babies. People without children or a partner may mourn the lost opportunity to have these relationships or experiences.

Gradually, you may feel less able to do things or you may lose interest in activities you previously enjoyed. For many people, this is a natural part of coming to terms with death. It may make you feel sad and very low, but you may also move towards a sense of peace.


This information was last reviewed in January 2017
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