Manners Around the Terminally Ill Person

Daughter talking to senior man reclining on hospital bed
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If you've ever had a friend who knew he or she had a terminal illness and that death was coming soon, you know how difficult it can be to know what to do or say. The most important thing to remember is that the person is still living at this moment, so always be as respectful as you would if this friend hadn't told you about the disease. Try to focus on the here and now rather than the person's impending death.

Maintain a Positive Attitude

Some people avoid anyone who has a terminal illness because they don't want to be depressed or think they might catch whatever it is. Chances are, unless the afflicted person has been quarantined, it's not contagious.

Be as cheerful as you can be without acting silly or fake. Your positive attitude will brighten the terminally ill person's day that may otherwise be dreary.

How to Act

Here are some tips on how to treat someone who has a terminal disease:

  1. Offer a friendly greeting. It doesn't always have to be about the disease, but you may ask, "How are you today?" Say it the same way you would to someone who is healthy, and not with a depressing or condescending tone.
  2. Include the person, as you would have in the past. If this is someone you used to invite to dinner parties or to baseball games, continue to do so. She's still living, so she probably wants to continue doing what she has always enjoyed. She'll let you know if she is unable to go.
  3. Don't dwell on death. Do your very best to see the person as alive and not someone who is consumed with funeral arrangements. You don't have to bring up what will happen after she is gone. If she wants to discuss it, fine, but let her be the one to start that conversation. Count each of her remaining days as a blessing.
  4. Listen. When your friend tells you that she has a terminal disease, listen to her and be as comforting as you can without giving advice. Chances are, she's been to the doctor and is getting some sort of professional treatment. When she tells you the latest news from her doctor appointments, don't feel that you always have to respond. Sometimes she might just need to vent.
  5. Take cues from the person. If you are listening, you're likely to pick up on her needs. If she wants to discuss her condition, by all means, discuss it. If she wants to keep her feelings to herself, give her some space.
  6. Offer assistance. Let your friend know that you would like to help, but don't be too open-ended with your offer of assistance. In other words, don't just say, "Let me know if there is anything I can do." Instead, offer to drive her to her chemo treatments or to babysit if she has small children.
  7. Don't be sad all the time. Even though she may be dying, she doesn't want you to always have a sad face when she sees you. A warm smile can go a long way toward making her last days more pleasant.
  8. Don't judge. When someone has a terminal disease, there is nothing you can say to change things, so don't pass judgment.
  9. Accept frustration and anger. When someone has been told she has only a few weeks or months to live, she is likely to be frustrated or feel angry. Understand that this is a normal reaction. Don't take her anger personally, even if she lashes out at you. Remain calm but sympathetic. If her anger turns violent or continues on in a vicious way, you can remove yourself from her presence until she has calmed down. Chances are, she'll feel bad later and apologize.
  10.  Don't say anything rude. If you have never had a terminal illness—and chances are you haven't—don't tell her that you know how she feels. 

Be a Friend to the End

When someone has a terminal illness, be there for her as you would have before you found out. She needs as much normalcy in her life as possible as long as she is still alive.