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What to Write to Someone with a Terminal Illness

by Norra MacReady

Few things are more painful than learning that someone close to you has a terminal illness. You may feel grief, fear and perhaps even anger or guilt. At the same time, you also want to let her know that she is not alone: you are with her on this final journey. Sometimes it is easier to express your feelings in writing rather than in person, but even then it can be hard to know what to say.

Signal Willingness to Talk

Everyone reacts to a terminal diagnosis in a different way. There is no instruction manual here. People often have the misconception that talking about dying is difficult for the patient, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Actually, she may welcome the opportunity to share her feelings about what lies ahead. A truthful statement such as, “I can’t imagine what this must be like for you,” or “I am always available to talk about anything you’d like,” sends the message that you are open to any feelings she wants to express, with no judgments or preconceived notions.

Make Specific Offers

In addition to the emotional trauma, having a terminal illness can turn everyday life upside down -- with frequent trips to doctors and hospitals, handling the side effects of medications, dealing with related issues such as insurance and legal matters and so on. If you want to be helpful, make specific offers: “I will go to the market for you every Tuesday,” or, “I will pick up your kids from school so you don’t have to worry about it.”

Mistakes to Avoid

Perhaps as a reaction to their own discomfort with death, many people feel the need to somehow “fix” or “cheer up” the dying person with statements such as, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” This can seem dismissive of his or her real fears or concerns, writes Joti Samra, a psychologist, in The Globe and Mail. Friends and family of terminally ill people often find comfort in support groups where they can vent their feelings of sadness and frustration. This allows them to express themselves authentically to the patient and remain attuned to what she really needs.

Stay Supportive

A letter provides a chance to convey emotions that might be too overwhelming to express in person, such as your love for your friend and your gratitude for her friendship. Remind her that you are always willing to talk, but respect her feelings and her schedule. And remember that even a terminally ill person isn't depressed all the time. In your letter, you can reminisce about special times you shared or repeat a private joke only the two of you get. Laughter has a healing power all its own.

About the Author

Norra MacReady has more than 30 years' experience as a health and medical writer and editor. She has been published in medical journals, such as "The Lancet," as well as consumer publications such as "Self," "Glamour," "Neurology Now" and "Heart Insight." MacReady has a Master's in human nutrition from Columbia University and also obtained a Master's in clinical psychology. She is pursuing licensure as a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.

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