What To Do When You Discover You’re Dying

by Jeff Cans
woman depressed after learning about dying

Whether you have a terminal diagnosis of cancer, heart failure, or some other condition, finding out you’re dying is distressing. There are many different emotions and ways to cope. This devastating news will affect you and your loved ones in many different ways.

First Reactions

Your first reaction to a terminal diagnosis is your own. There is no right way to react as there is no wrong way. Each person responds differently. Being told you are dying comes as a shock to most people and can be extremely hard to bear. Even if you knew this may be the news, having a terminal diagnosis confirmed can be very upsetting and elicit a wide range of reactions.

When this news is given, you may go completely silent. You may be overcome with disbelief and have no idea what to do or say. Many thoughts and emotions may be swirling through you, leaving you without words. Another reaction may be screaming, as the mass of thoughts and emotions explode from you. At this time, you may be unable to make sense of the news, which may make you unable to verbalize the shock, pain, and disbelief that is your new reality.

Still, you may cry, uncontrollably, until there are no tears left. Even then, you may not be close to the sheer depths of your despair. And finally, anger, fear, and numbness are other common reactions to this news. Like a mass of sights, sounds, and smells overwhelming emotions often dominate the first reaction to a terminal diagnosis. All of these reactions and many others are natural and to be expected.

When you first learn of your diagnosis, questions that may run through your mind include:

  • Why me?
  • What did I do to deserve this?
  • What could I have changed?
  • Why is there no treatment to help me?

dying man with terminal illnessGive yourself as much time as you need to absorb this news. If you need to, isolate yourself to fully understand your diagnosis or, if you’d like, discuss it with your significant other, friends, family, or pet. All of these, and perhaps a journal, are excellent ways to cope with the news.

Your loved ones may not know how to deal with this news, either. They may be as blown away as you are. Like you, they may respond with silence, anger, fear, and numbness. Some may yell at the doctor, demanding a fix for your illness, while others will do everything in their power to protect you. A terminal diagnosis will bounce off of everyone who loves you and even if all of you just scream or cry together, it may help you and your loved ones move closer to the acceptance stage.

If you want to take some time alone or remain silent, do this. Don’t force yourself to react in an “acceptable” manner. Just let your loved ones know and take all the time you need. Though this is an extremely difficult time, try not to deny your emotions altogether. Whatever way you decide to express your emotions, that won’t hurt others, is encouraged. Denying the emotions that come along with a terminal diagnosis can introduce a great deal of turmoil inside of you.

Emotions You May Feel

The first few days may be filled with extreme and overwhelming emotions which may change rapidly and be difficult to cope with. Tied to the diagnosis is the need to rethink the plans you had for your future and push any goals you can to a more immediate date. Dying may mean leaving children, a partner, friends, and others behind, which may cause you worry as you wonder how they will fare when you are gone. Seeing them in distress may be very upsetting for you, and some of your loved ones may try to hide their feelings, but this does not mean they care any less for you.

Thoughts of leaving behind your loved ones may be too painful to deal with at times, and you may cry and worry nearly non-stop. Another reaction may be apathy. With this diagnosis you may feel that doing anything is useless. And still, watching others go on about their normal lives may be hard for you to witness. You may think, “Why hasn’t the world paused?”

All of these reactions are completely normal, understandable, and fully up to you. As the days continue, your whiplash emotions may become exhausting, but they may help you cope with the news. You are not alone in these emotions. Most people will experience some, if not all, of these same emotions. Many people have said this roller coaster of emotions will lessen gradually. Feelings of worry and upset may persist, but as the intensity of these emotions dims, you may be ready to think more calmly and make plans again.

Discussing Your Feelings

elderly man with terminal illness speaking with loved onesMany people with a terminal diagnosis find that talking about their emotions helps them cope better. This may also help your loved ones and friends understand more about your situation and be able to support you in ways that you would like. If you would like to talk to others, choose people that are easy to talk to, empathetic, and have been known to display good listening skills. They will be of the most support to you as you process the diagnosis.

On the other hand, you may find discussing your feelings too hard to bear, and you may want to keep them to yourself. Choose whichever course of action that feels the best. Resist the urge to be pressured into discussing your feelings; the choice is entirely up to you.

If some time has passed and you are still filled with overwhelming emotions, speaking to someone who is further from your inner circle may be helpful.

You may want to visit a counselor to discuss these emotions. She/he may be able to help you cope with these feelings. There are many organizations available to help you handle the grief and other aspects of terminal illness.

Some resources that may help include finding more information about counseling, remaining hopeful, and if you or your family would like, researching the process of dying.

To remain hopeful you may look forward to a location you haven’t been to or one you love, spending time with your family and friends, or finding/strengthening your religion.

Sharing your hopes with your loved ones may help them fulfill your wishes. Others with a terminal diagnosis have hoped for dignity, to be surrounded by their loved ones, comfort, and pictures of themselves to be shared with future generations.

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