How to act around terminal illness

Ok, my grandfather was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. He has a few months…not many. I’m VERY upset about it because he was like a father to me growing up. My actual father lived in another state, so my grandfather was they man I looked up to. He’s accepted the situation and has declined treatment (he’s 85 and very weak at this point and it’s inoperable).

However, I have never been around this situation before. I know I am supposed to stay positive around him, and I’ll find a way to do that. But am I supposed to pretend nothing is happening? Should I talk to him about it? I’m just not sure what to say around him at this point, but I want to spend as much time with him as I can over the next few months.

Sorry to hear about your grandfather Robert.

The same thing happened to my grandfather who was also about 85 back in 2001. I didn’t talk to him about the cancer…I just took any opportunity I could to see him before he died. Although I have to admit that I wasn’t as close to my grandfather as you probably are so YMMV.

I don’t think there’s any particular sure fire way to deal with the impending death of somebody close to you. It’s a difficult time no matter what you do or say.

Sorry to hear that. Losing someone you’re close to is never fun. Here’s a jumble of thoughts:

He might want to talk about it, he might not. It depends on the person. Respect his wishes on the matter. As the time gets shorter and shorter he may change his mind if he’s reluctant to discuss it now.

Whatever route you go, just be sure to spend some time with him, and it wouldn’t help to explicitly say all those nice things you wrote above to him face to face. Guys aren’t usually very expressive, so even though you feel like he’s been a father figure to you, I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to him to have you say it.

When someone’s dying, they often wonder what their legacy will be - not many of us build monuments or buildings with our names on em, or have been famous in entertainment, political, or other arenas. Therefore, our legacy is the impressions we make on people around us, and what impact we’ve had on our family. I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to him to know how much he’s impacted your life.

Don’t deny the fact that he’s dying. He knows it, you know it. If you avoid it, it’ll be like the 800 pound elephant in the room that everyone sees but everyone ignores. But on the other hand, don’t make it the topic of every conversation.

Even if you are commiserating with him on his impending demise, it won’t hurt to say “I’m really gonna miss you when you’re gone.” People like knowing they’re gonna be missed.

My sympathy to you and your family. I can relate, I’m sure many of us can.

If your grandfather is a very open sort of person, take this opportunity to talk about anything and everything, no matter how trivial or deep. Maybe even record your conversations for posterity, if he’s open to that.

Mostly, just be yourself as much as you can. It can be hard when we’re uncomfortable with Death, and there He is looming over our shoulder, but do the best you can.

Best wishes.

In February of 2001 my Dad went into casualty with a blinding headache. After a few days of tests, they found a tumor in his head (a secondary site, meaning there was a larger, primary cancer somewhere else in his body) and he was told he had six months to live. In August 2001 he died. He was 53.

My wife and I went back to Ireland as much as we could during those last six months and I told him everything that entered my head. Don’t let any cultural ideas about parent/child relationships, or the bullshit tropes of masculinity, get in the way of you saying what you need to say. Everyone is scared. Everyone needs love.

I’ve never actually experienced this, but I would probably somehow get it out there just to get it over with, then get back to enjoying the time left as much as possible.

When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer he was convinced it was still somehow curable and didn’t want to talk about it. Because of his outlook the rest of us really had to tiptoe around the subject and, consequently, couldn’t really discuss it directly with him. We respected his choice but it was bizarre for the rest of us.

I’d recommend just being present as much as possible. Let him know you’re willing to talk about anything including his illness. But also be fine if he doesn’t want to talk about it. Find things to do together like playing cards, puzzles, John Wayne movies, etc. As you two are around each other the subject will come up if he wants it to.

I’ve had a fair amount of wasting cancer around me (father, grandfather, friends, etc), and I think the one thing that held true was that I regretted the things I didn’t say much more than the ones I did. Short of soap opera ridiculous scenarios, most anything ought to be fair game. Of course, I’m sure the last thing a dying man wants to be is a confessional, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

I would say don’t tiptoe around anything. Get it out there. Confront. Get emotional. Tragedy is by definition sad, but it is also an opportunity in this context.

Yeah. The worst thing you can do is to avoid spending time with him because of your own personal issues with his illness. It’s hard to think of a more selfish act.

Oh I would never do that, and I didn’t mean to even imply that. I was more interested in how to act around him.

Sorry to hear about your grandfather.

IMO, just try to make things as normal as possible. Don’t force anything, plan topics of conversation, focus on staying positive, or put any effort at all into thinking or analyzing the situation. If you break down, break down. If you share some laughs, share some laughs. You two obviously have a close relationship. So just spend time together.

I’d just try and follow his lead.

I’d definitely follow his lead. You may also want to just spend as much time as possible saying all the things that haven’t been said. Don’t be afraid to tell him you love him, etc. etc.

I’d also try to find some activities you both enjoy. My father in law was diagnosed last Thanksgiving with stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer (and it doesn’t get a whole lot worse than that!) He was given 6 months. He lasted 2.5 weeks. One of my favorite memories, however, was playing poker with him a few days before he died. Despite the fact that he was out of it on meds, he absolutely obliterated the rest of us. When we commented on it, he said “it’s not that I’m playing well – it’s just that you guys are absolutely terrible.” :)

It’s also a chance to learn a lot of the family history that you didn’t know – I learned a lot about my father in law and, in particular, about his life before he married my mother in law. Having him talk about his days as a semi-professional gambler and owning racehorses, in particular, was really interesting!

Treat the illness talk as matter-of-fact, otherwise don’t change at all. He doesn’t want to be coddled or pitied, I’d reckon.


Act normal. If he wants to talk about it he will bring it up, otherwise he doesn’t.

In general, don’t try to play mental games with people and feel out if you should broach a subject because they want to discuss it but can’t or some bullshit. It puts a weird spin on everything and is more disruptive then it could ever be helpful.

Shit, if I was dieing the last thing I’d want to talk about was that I was dieing. I’d be to busy living.

Chris Woods

Robert, I’m also very sorry to hear of the situation. I agree with the general advice to just be yourself, don’t hold back, but follow his lead. Spending time with him is important, and the time doesn’t have to be “about” his illness, but neither should the illness be completely disregarded.

My father was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1993 and was dead of leukemia about six weeks later. He was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and thus refused all blood based treatments. I am not a Witness and didn’t share his religious prohibition about the use of blood. The doctors came to me and suggested that I might be able to “talk to him” to get him to consider blood-based treatments, which might prolong his life (there was no hope of a real cure). I was a law student at the time and very confident in my powers of argumentation and I did consider it for awhile. Ultimately, however, I came to the conclusion that the decision was his, that I should respect his decision. He knew the risks and benefits, he was an adult, he had been a Witness for his entire adult life and he was going to live or die by his beliefs. That was his choice. So I never tried to “talk to him” about taking blood treatment. Instead we talked about the family and baseball and his projects around the house.

I have a very distinct memory of him a few days before his death talking about fixing up my car. “When I get back on my feet, we’ll do X,Y, Z to that vehicle”. He wasn’t in denial, he knew he was done for. He just refused to let that affect his attitude. He continued to live his life until the end. It was probably the strongest life lesson he ever taught me, and he had taught me many.

Looking back on it, I am more grateful than I can say that I let his final weeks be about him, and didn’t try to impose my own views on the situation. I am also grateful that I had a chance to spend some time with him.

So: spend the time, talk about what he wants to talk about, and let it be about him, unless he doesn’t want that. Keep on living: that’s the key lesson IMO.

Most of the advice so far is very solid – try to follow his lead, don’t tiptoe around the illness, be yourself and present. I do think it’s important to address the illness directly, although it can be brief. I’ve watched relatives of dying people who are too uncomfortable or avoidant to say anything, and ironically it’s often the dying person who comforts the relative by diplomatically following their lead and avoiding the elephant in the room. It’s a significant event – mention it, and then move on if he wants to show you his garden.

I’ve got a 66-year-old aunt that has been given 3-6 months to live due to leukemia. Something important for me is, each time I talk to her, to let her know something I learned from her or appreciate about her. For example, she travels to Europe more than others in my family, so I asked her for tips about our upcoming Italy vacation while seeing how her last round of chemo went. At that point, there was still a chance for remission, so she mentioned the next trip she’d like to take as well.

My mom has been helping my aunt a lot over the last year, and she picked up I Don’t Know What to Say and found it helpful. I haven’t studied the book in-depth, but when I skimmed it there was a lot of solid advice consistent with modern health psychology and grief counseling principles.

I’m glad you’ll be able to spend some time with him before he dies. It’s good to be reminded of the significant folks in our lives, and to honor them.

Sorry to hear about that Robert. Say what you need to say and not what you think they need you to say.

Sorry to hear that.

Robert, very sorry to hear that. I “just” went through this last month (and for the previous couple months before that) with my 85 year old Grandmother. Though she never smoked, she had lung cancer, accepted it like your grandfather, and had the same amount of time (likewise treatment for her was not an option).

It’s tough seeing someone so full of life struck down this way especially when you love them very much. My suggestion is just be there for him when you can. Talk about the good times you had growing up and reflect on all the positives of your time together. Concerning the illness don’t ignore that he has it. Ask how he’s feeling and if there’s anything you get him (water, pop, food etc). Just be sensible and supportive. That’s the best thing a person can have. We had Hospice for my Grandmother’s last 2 months and they were wonderful.