10 Practical Tasks to Help You Deal with a Terminal Illness

Suggestions to help you make the most of the time that you have left

Diagnosis of a terminal illness brings with it an immediate reshuffling of your priorities, as well as a wealth of new challenges and concerns. Here are 10 practical tasks to help you deal with a terminal illness regarding the many issues that arise after learning your remaining time is limited.

Empower Yourself Through Knowledge

Those facing a terminal illness can accomplish many practical tasks in their remaining time. Photo © mbbirdy/Getty Images

We fear most what we understand least, so empower yourself by learning everything you can about how your illness will affect you. Ask your doctor(s) what physical, mental and/or emotional changes you should expect as your disease progresses. Search online or at a local library or bookstore for information specific to your illness -- particularly for accounts by/about those with the same diagnosis -- to discover how others have coped.

In addition, learn to recognize common end-of-life symptoms so you can treat them, if possible, and improve the quality of your remaining time.

Forgive Yourself in Advance

There is no correct way to deal with a terminal illness, and you will experience a tremendous range of emotions in the weeks or months ahead, from anger and resentment to fear and depression. While such feelings are normal, how you will react to and manage them on any given day will be unique to you. Some days will be better than others, so forgive yourself in advance for the times when you don’t handle something as well as you’d like to.

Set Your Priorities

You know yourself best, and only you can determine the things most important to you in the time you have left. Depending upon the nature and extent of your illness, and after discussions with your doctor(s) and loved ones, ask yourself if you wish to pursue all of the treatment options available to prolong your life. Or would you rather focus on enhancing the quality of your remaining time and spending it with your family and friends? Somewhere in between? Making an informed decision about how you wish to chart your remaining course can help alleviate feelings of helplessness and fear.

Plan for a "Good Death"

To some extent, all of the tasks in this article will help you plan for a "good death" -- one in which you decide to die on your own terms and as comfortably as possible -- but you should also choose where you wish to die. While the nature and extent of your illness, treatment methods and the priorities you set will influence your decision, there are many options available to you. While most Americans would prefer to die at home, others might choose a hospital, nursing home or hospice facility, which can offer a greater level of skilled treatment. After contemplating which setting you most prefer, discuss it with your doctor(s) and loved ones to make sure it is a viable option.

Talk Openly About the Elephant in the Room

With so much thought and attention focused on you and your illness, it might be easy to forget that your loved ones will also experience a wide range of emotions as they attempt to cope with the thought of losing you. Your family and friends might also feel awkward or uncertain about what to say or how to act around you as they worry about uttering the wrong thing or reminding you about your illness.

In addition, fears concerning future financial support, childcare or other practical matters will undoubtedly cross their minds at some point and likely trigger intense feelings of guilt for being "selfish" at a time like this. Therefore, as much for them as for yourself, sit down with those who love you and discuss honestly and openly how you're feeling, and allow them to express their thoughts and emotions, as well. Let them know how important their support is to you and that, as much as you can, you will be there to support them too.

Establish Your PSN (Practical Support Network)

The previous task helped improve the emotional support that you and your family will require in the days and months ahead, but you should also focus upon creating a "practical support network" as soon as possible. Again, depending upon the nature, extent and physical, mental and/or emotional changes you anticipate as your illness progresses, ask yourself if and for how long you want to continue handling daily chores, assuming you still can. If you were responsible for cutting the lawn, picking up groceries, doing the laundry, paying bills, preparing meals, etc., consider who could or should assume those responsibilities when you're no longer able or simply wish to let go of them so you can devote your time to something else.

Process that Paperwork

Hopefully you have taken the time to create/update your will and insurance paperwork, but, if not, make that a priority and then let your family know where those documents are. You should also consider creating an advance healthcare directive, which puts your specific desires about your future health care in writing.

This legally binding document encompasses two parts. The first is a durable power of attorney for health care, in which you will name someone (a proxy) who can make medical decisions for you should you become unable to do so. The second part is a living will, in which you can spell out the treatments you want or don't want at the end of your life.

In addition, depending upon where you live, you might be able to create a Do Not Resuscitate or Do Not Attempt Resuscitation order. These documents, which both you and your doctor must sign, specify that you do not want a full resuscitation effort if the time comes.

Finally, consider donating some or all of your organs or tissue, if possible, in order to give others the gift of life. You can include your instructions in the advance healthcare directive.

Preplan Your Funeral or Memorial Service

Attitudes toward funeral and memorial services and various forms of bodily disposition have changed dramatically in the past 20 years and the types of services available have increased significantly. If you haven't already done so, as many people now do, then you should preplan your funeral or memorial service to ensure your wishes are met and make things slightly easier on your loved ones.

If you find this task too difficult to face, you should at least try to speak to someone in your family to let them know what form of final disposition you would like (burial, cremation, entombment, etc.) and, if possible, what sort of service you prefer (a traditional funeral in a church or funeral home, private cremation and a memorial service later, etc.).

Say What Needs to be Said

In the film Grumpy Old Men, Jack Lemmon's character remarks that another character was "lucky" because he died instantly in a head-on collision with a freight truck. Perhaps, but the sudden death of a loved one often compounds the grief felt by survivors as they recall things they wish they'd said but will never be able to now. In the days and weeks ahead, make a point of telling your friends and family members the things you'd like them to know -- that you're proud of them or that you love them -- and don't be surprised when they respond in kind.

Carpe Diem

Throughout our lives, we are often told to "seize the day" or "make every day count." Yet, given the pace of life as we hurry from one thing to another, too few of us understand that the most profound, most memorable moments of our lives don't just happen on exotic vacations or during gala events but all around us, every day, whether we see them or not.

In the weeks or months ahead, if you find yourself overwhelmed with some of the preceding tasks listed here, or by the other items on your list, tell yourself it's okay to just stop and take time for yourself. Watch the sunset. Hold your spouse's hand or that of your child. Listen to the birds sing. Do whatever you need to do to find a simple moment of joy. You might not have the gift of time, but you certainly can make the most of the time that you have.

"Nearing the End of Life." www.cancer.org. 2011. American Cancer Society. Retrieved July 12, 2012. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/NearingtheEndofLife/NearingtheEndofLife/index

"What is a 'Good Death'?" www.caring.com. Barbara Kate Repa, Caring.com. Retrieved July 17, 2012. http://www.caring.com/articles/a-good-death

"Live Like You Were Living." www.igliving.com. 2011. Michael Strausbaugh, I.G. Living! Retrieved July 18, 2012. http://www.igliving.com/BlogEngine/post/Live-Like-You-Were-Living.aspx

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