What Is A Terminal Illness And How Do You Cope With It?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

Receiving the news that you or someone that you care about has been inflicted with a terminal illness is something that no one wants to hear. It can be devastating for everyone involved, and it can be tough to accept at first. However, despite the inevitable outcome, there are ways to make the process more bearable. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about terminal illnesses and what you or your loved ones can do to cope with being terminally ill and, hopefully, find peace.

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What Is A Terminal Illness?

In layman’s terms, a terminal illness, or disease, is a condition that is incurable and will directly lead to the death of the individual who has diagnosed with one.

Examples of these types of illnesses can include but aren’t limited to, advanced stage terminal cancer, progressive neurological conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s disease, advanced heart, lung, and liver diseases, and untreated HIV/AIDS.

Being terminally ill is also different than someone who has suffered trauma and isn’t expected to recover, such as being involved in a terrible accident; however, the care might be similar.

What Is The Life-Expectancy Of Someone Who Is Terminally Ill?

Some of the most common questions that come up when discussing terminal illnesses are ones about how much time a person has left.

The truth is, there is no set amount of time, and no one knows for sure and can say for certain, and this can be uncomfortable for many people to accept at first. Someone with a terminal illness may only last a few days or weeks after they have been diagnosed, whereas others can last months or potentially years.

Only a medical professional can give their best estimate as to how long a person who is terminally ill might be able to live for based on the progression of the disease; however, they can’t be 100 percent certain either.

What Kind Of Care Is Available?

Despite having a terminal illness, people can potentially prolong their lives with certain medications and other devices that can sustain life, such as feeding tubes, defibrillators, and breathing machines.

These can provide terminally ill patients some comfort and increased quality of life while they are still here. Some people with a terminal illness can still live life to the best of their ability by managing their symptoms.

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Palliative care is a specific type of treatment that aims to do this. [1] Instead of attempting to cure the disease, it prioritizes comfort above all else. In many places, it is also often referred to as hospice care.

Many different professionals can be involved in palliative care and helping out terminally ill patients such as doctors, nurses, counselors, and other volunteers and aides who can help out with performing tasks for the patient. A cleric can also be present for religious individuals as finding relief can also mean finding spiritual comfort, in addition to the physical and social aspects.

Of course, friends and family can also participate, and hospice care isn’t just for the terminally ill exclusively. The hospice counselors are also there to assist a patient’s loved ones, and other staff can help out with practical things such as cleaning or running errands. [2]

Some types of care for the terminally ill can be performed at home, whereas others may be at a facility, depending on symptoms and a person’s level of pain.

Coping With Terminal Illness

Learning how to cope will take effort not just for the terminally ill, but for their loved ones as well, and by collaborating and finding support together, the process can be more comforting for everyone.

Talk To Others

Finding people to talk to is crucial to coping with a terminal illness, and as mentioned before, your friends and family should be involved, but you can also talk to counselors and caregivers as well.

Following your diagnosis, you may be feeling many different emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, frustration, and even denial. You also might be asking yourself questions like “Why me?” or “This can’t be real.”

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You might not be able to answer all of the questions you have. Still, by talking it out, you can eventually be able to accept the situation and what will inevitably happen. Instead of experiencing negative emotions, you can try to live life to your fullest and the best of your ability.

Friends and family of someone who is terminally ill will also most likely have their own feelings that they need to process and will need time to talk as well.  However, if you have a loved one who is sick, and you don’t have words to express how you are feeling, your presence is still important to people with a terminal condition, as it can help fight loneliness.

If you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with an incurable condition, never underestimate the value that just being there with them can bring comfort.

Over time, after the initial emotions have settled down, you and your loved one can try to find happiness at the moment and enjoy life as it is right now. Perhaps they have many stories that’d like to share, or you can bond over memories that were made together.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances, many terminally ill individuals want to be treated as normally as possible. Your relationship won’t change, and instead of focusing on losing them in the future, try to make that connection even stronger. [3]

Dealing With Death

Everyone has their own beliefs about death and what happens afterward, and thus, addressing it will vary from person to person, and coming to terms with it will be determined by their beliefs surrounding the concept of death. [4] For example, someone who believes in an afterlife may find reassurance that they will find peace after death.

How people think about death also can be influenced by their experiences with it in the past as well as media sources, like television, movies, and books.

When we are younger, we start out with a minimal understanding of what death means to us, but over time, it starts to develop. This development can start out as a fear of death, but gradually, it leads to the understanding that death is an inevitable part of life – it happens to every single one of us, and it’s permanent. [4]

Despite this, people can still experience fear towards death, but it’s more related to not knowing when or how it will happen. This creates uncertainty and discomfort, and therefore, it’s completely natural to grieve and experience other emotions such as anger and denial.

However, in the case of a person with a terminal illness, people can begin the grieving process preemptively. This is known as anticipatory grief, and while it can be just as stressful as already losing someone, it gives everyone time to prepare. [4]

Compared to sudden grief from an unexpected death, which can leave people shocked, unprepared, and left with unresolved issues, being able to expect the outcome of a terminal illness can allow everyone involved to show support for each other, and make end-of-life preparations like creating a will and making funeral arrangements.

Being able to discuss death with one another, make resolutions, taking the time to reflect and share past experiences, and showing gratitude for one another, can make the grieving process more manageable, and eventually, it will turn into acceptance.

Professional Help For The Terminally Ill and Their Loved Ones

Having friends and family around to support a patient with a terminal illness can be invaluable. Still, some professionals specialize in helping people process their feelings towards death and help them reach the point of acceptance.

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On top of feeling negative feelings like sadness, anger, and disbelief, many people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness can also feel alone, and not everyone has people around them that they can confide in all of the time, or at all. Some patients can also feel uncomfortable discussing the subject with people that they are close to.

If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone, and counselors and therapists that specialize in helping people with a terminal illness face their fears, sort out their thoughts and feelings, and provide them with ways that they can find closure.

Many palliative care and hospice programs will have counselors and therapists who are specifically trained to help people in this type of situation. However, not everyone has access to these services, or things like insurance may not support it and, thus, can present financial issues.

No one should feel stressed about finances and getting access to adequate care. At BetterHelp, licensed mental health professionals are available online to help you find comfort and peace during this difficult time. In addition to helping you process your emotions, counseling, and therapy can also guide you in finding meaning and joy in life while you still can.

Therapy isn’t just for patients, though, and people who have someone important to them who is terminally ill can benefit from it too. Individuals who have a loved one who is struggling with a terminal illness can also feel pain and other strong emotions.

These feelings are completely natural, but therapy can help you overcome them, and instead of worrying, it can also teach you how to make the most out of your time with your loved one. It will also be helpful for the aftermath; bereavement and grief can last a long time, but someone to help guide you through it can make things less painful and give you the reassurance that you will be okay.


Terminal illness is an uncomfortable topic for many people. Still, hopefully, this article has given you more insight on how to navigate it and possibly start opening up to others, and this doesn’t only apply to terminally ill patients, but those who are close to them as well. With help, everyone can still find ways to enjoy the present and find comfort with moving forward into the future.


  1. Marie Curie. (2019, April 1). What is terminal illness? Definition of terminal illness. Retrieved from https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/who/terminal-illness-definition
  2. Chang, L. (2018, August 6). Hospice Care – Your Questions Answered. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/palliative-care/hospice-care
  3. Hospice care: Comforting the terminally ill. (2019, January 30). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/hospice-care/art-20048050
  4. University of Rochester Medical Center. (2020). Coping with Terminal Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=85&contentid=p07169

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