Coping with terminal illness

A terminal illness diagnosis can be devastating news for the person facing terminal illness, as well as for anyone else who holds them dear. In reality, most of us will have a hard time processing this kind of information, even if we expected the diagnosis.

There simply is no right or wrong way to react, and people commonly experience extreme emotions or a sense of numbness after they've been given such news. You will need to find ways to decide what's important to you and how you do want to spend your time, realising that your priorities will have shifted.

How to deal with a terminal illness diagnosis

Being diagnosed with terminal illness can be overwhelming as you may feel alone, afraid and unable to absorb the news. You might find you need time to think, or just to be with friends and family. While it’s normal to feel this way, it’s important to remember you are not alone and these feelings become more manageable for most people over time.

Questions about your condition may have no definitive answers, such as how your terminal disease will progress, or knowing when you’re going to die. But taking control of the issues you are facing, breaking things down into smaller pieces, and seeking the help you need will give you the confidence to face the future and understand how to live with a terminal illness.

Where to find help after a diagnosis

There are many resources that could help you cope with your emotions and worries at this difficult time:

  • Speaking to someone close, who you trust – a family member or friend, is often the best way to start. Remember that people close to you will be dealing with their own feelings about your diagnosis, which may affect how much you feel you can say to them.
  • You may prefer to speak to someone who doesn’t know you – someone who might be able to remain more objective – like making an appointment with your GP free of charge, or a professional counsellor, which can cost. You can find out more about what counselling for the terminally ill can offer, and details of counsellors in your area, at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
  • There are terminal illness support groups across the country where you can meet and talk to people who are in a similar situation to you. Your healthcare team may be able to tell you about groups local to you, or you can find a comprehensive list on Supportline.
  • If you prefer not to meet face-to-face, there are online groups where you can talk and share experiences. You don’t even have to interact – simply reading other peoples’ posts may be reassuring. Among the better known are Macmillan Cancer Support and HealthUnlocked.
  • If your religious beliefs are important to you, you might find it helpful to talk to a religious leader at your hospital or in your community.
  • Your nursing specialists or your doctor should also be able to suggest other ways to help you.

Paperwork and practical steps

It can be difficult to think about practical issues when you are facing terminal illness, but collecting the right documents, making arrangements for yourself and for any dependents, and informing your family about your decisions should be a priority. Creating or updating your will, ensuring your life insurance arrangements are up-to-date and understanding your overall financial position will bring peace of mind for you and your family.

You may also consider setting up a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), which is a legal document that lets you appoint someone to make decisions for you if you become unable to make decisions for yourself. Lasting Power of Attorneys can cover financial or health and welfare aspects of your wishes and are a legally binding way to ensure you remain in control of your life for as long as possible.

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As long as you are 18 or over, and have mental capacity, you can set up an Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA). The benefit of creating an LPA means that, if the worst was to happen, and you were left  unable to make financial and medical decisions, your chosen attorney(s) would be able to do so on your behalf. Without an LPA, your family may experience financial difficulties simply because without an LPA, your affairs and finances may be left in limbo while your family applies for a Court of Protection. This usually takes time and money before a deputy is appointed.

While this process is happening, you may require specialist or palliative care, which your family may need to fund until the deputy has been appointed.

In comparison, the LPA allows you as the donor to appoint your attorney(s) that you trust to carry out your wishes, which could include making sure that your family is financially secure.

It's never too early to set up an LPA while you have mental capacity and could result in less stress and anxiety for your family while being able to care for you.

Other practical elements to consider is whether you wish to pre-plan your funeral or memorial service. You might do this to make sure your wishes are followed, or to make it easier for family and friends.

A 'Health and Welfare LPA' allows you as the donor to choose attorney(s) that you trust to make decisions about your daily routine (washing, dressing, eating), medical care, moving in to a care home and life-sustaining medical treatment. It can only be used if you're unable to make your own decisions. Without a Health and Welfare LPA, your medical professionals will make the decisions based on what is in your best interests, and maybe not what you consider your best interests. This could cause problems if your spouse or loved ones know that you would have wished otherwise. They would need to apply to the court for a Deputyship Order. It's important to understand that a Health and Warefare LPA would not cover decisions about your property financial affairs. 

How to support a loved one with a terminal illness

Dealing with terminal illness in the family can be a shocking and disruptive event for all family members. You will all experience a wide range of emotions, and you will need each other’s support more than ever.

The most important thing you can do is to listen and try to understand what your loved one is experiencing. Be sensitive to their needs and ask rather than assume what help they will want.

Offer practical help with paperwork, wishes, or care to make sure your loved one has the best quality of life in the time they have left. Make sure you understand financial and legal paperwork and any plans for end-of-life care and funerals.

It's especially hard for children to come to terms with sad news. Specialist help and support is available from many sources, and our own research on the lessons of life and loss may help uncover some perspective on how to come to terms with death.

Above all, spend time together sharing precious memories and making new ones that will be enjoyable to you and your loved one in the present, and a comfort to you in the future.

The benefit of Life Insurance if diagnosed with a terminal illness

Our Life Insurance and Decreasing Life Insurance includes Terminal Illness Cover as an additional benefit at no extra cost. It could pay out the full amount of cover in advance if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness (when life expectancy is less than 12 months) during your period of cover.

Terminal illness cover explained

When looking at terminal illness vs critical illness cover, the difference is that a critical illness refers to a specified serious injury, illness or medical episode, whereas a terminal diagnosis means your hospital consultant expects the illness will lead to death within the next 12 months.

Your cash sum would be paid on receipt of a valid claim, and you can decide how the money is spent. You should note that no claim for terminal illness cover can be made after the insured person has passed away. Life insurance is not a savings or investment product and has no cash value unless a valid claim is made.

Other life insurance providers may provide terminal illness benefits as part of their policies. Please check with your provider for details.