The Grief of Your Dying Loved One

Family and friends can help guide the dying in understanding the range of emotions they experience

Looking back at my father's death during my childhood, I recall the frustration of small town medicine: no specialists, and only occasional, mostly ineffective, visits from the local physician. I remember the courageous and dedicated behavior of my young mother as she attended to her husband in the last months of his life, and the simple, homemade methods she used to ease his discomfort. I recall, too, the anxiety in our home as my mother tried to respond to my father's unvoiced thoughts and anticipate his emotional needs. It was often difficult to tell whether he was gripped more by emotional suffering or physical misery. And during his quiet, reflective moments, he didn't reveal the degree to which he was accepting the inevitability of his death and mourning his losses. I know now that my mother was trying to read my father's grief.

Dying in America has changed a lot since then. Now we have advanced medical treatment and technology, sophisticated methods of pain control, and institutions and caregivers dedicated to the care of the terminally ill. The work of Kubler-Ross and others has illuminated the scope and depth of the dying process, bringing it into the public consciousness.

What has not changed is that family and friends still must struggle to understand and support the grief of their dying loved ones. Even though there are no reliable "how to" formulas, we do know something of the twists and turns the emotions take on the way to death. That knowledge can help us feel more comfortable about providing the assistance that is most needed.


A diagnosis of terminal illness generally sparks shock and disbelief, quickly followed by some form of denial. The dying person may reject the facts of her condition, the course the illness will likely take, or the prospect of death. In some cases, she will delay the acceptance of her illness by visiting numerous specialists, clinging to the hope that her prognosis is incorrect.

This denial -- unless prolonged or extreme -- will do no harm. In fact, it temporarily eases emotional pain by robbing the terminal illness of its full implications. Denial gives the dying person time to gather strength, and to gradually assimilate the punishing facts of her changed circumstance.

Anger, another buffer against painful anxiety and grief, can also play a prominent role in the earlier stages of a terminal illness. Rage, sarcasm, miserliness, jealousy, or accusations may be aimed at anything and anyone. The dying person may even be angry with herself for contributing to her own death by self-destructive behavior. She may try secretly to bargain with God, promising to change if only given a "second chance."

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Carol Staudacher
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