How to explain death and terminal illness to your loved ones

When we find out someone we love is dying we are filled with many emotions. One emotion we may feel is fear or worry. We may think how will our life look without this person in it or how in the world do you explain this to your family and friends? Before explaining the terminal illness or death to a loved one, it is important to first remember who your audience is. Once you have established who you will be explaining this news to, then you can better prepare yourself for what to expect.

If you are explaining the terminal illness or death to a child or adolescent, please learn appropriate ways to discuss death with them. All children including infants grieve the loss of a loved one. Loss is separation. Children may not completely understand the reason for the loss, but they can feel the separation of the person before they die and after they are gone. If you are explaining terminal illness and death to a person with an intellectual disability it is important to understand at which developmental level they are functioning. Once you have established an age-range you can then use age appropriate materials and techniques to describe the terminal illness and loss to them. If you are explaining terminal illness and loss to an adult it may be useful to explain the news in the following ways.


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  • be clear and concise
  • use appropriate language
  • allow time for silence and reflection
  • allow the person to show emotion
  • encourage safe expression of emotion
  • discuss supports

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  • give the news in public
  • say everything will be okay
  • provide false promises
  • give advice

Mara Baginski, LCSW‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do be clear and concise

Explain the diagnosis and the predicted outcome when discussing a terminal illness. When discussing a death, explain clearly that the person has died. Use the word “died” in order to establish finality. It is neither harsh nor disrespectful to say the person “died” rather than the person “passed on.”

Do use appropriate language

Explain the terminal illness or death in language the person will understand. It is not helpful to use fancy medical terminology when discussing terminal illness or death. For example, you do not need to say the person died of a myocardial infarction, but instead simply say they died of a heart attack.

Do allow time for silence and reflection

nce you have given the person the news of a terminal illness or death it is important to allow the person to process the information they have just been given. Allow the person to process this thought. If there is no response for a while, ask quietly and politely if they heard and understand what you have just told them.

Do allow the person to show emotion

After the person has acknowledged the news, allow them to show emotion. Allow the person to show emotion in whatever safe way they can (sitting quietly, crying, sobbing, talking to themselves, etc).

Do encourage safe expression of emotion

As stated above, it is important to allow a person to show emotion; when they do, assist them in expressing emotion in a safe way. It is normal for people to become angry when they hear a loved one is dying or has died. Anger can be expressed in many negative and positive ways. It is important to encourage people to express their anger is a safe manner such as crying, yelling, creating artistic expression (music, art, or poetry).

Do discuss supports

Encourage a discussion with this person about supports such as family, friends, clergy, etc. Encourage the person to attend bereavement support groups and or bereavement counseling if needed in the future. Provide the person with the tools and information but allow them to make their own decision.

Mara Baginski, LCSW‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not give the news in public

It is not helpful to tell the person someone they love is dying or has died in front of other people. This may include people they know or strangers. If this news can be given to the person in private or as a small family group it is best and will allow them to express their emotion.

Do not say everything will be okay

Don’t say everything will be okay because you do not know everything will be okay, and you do not know what the person is feeling inside.

Do not provide false promises

It is damaging to give someone hope their loved one will live when in reality their illness looks terminal. Leave the actual prognosis up to the treating physician. Also, don’t make false promises to the person that you can’t keep. For example, don’t say “I will be over every day to check on you,” if you know in reality you cannot provide that level of care.

Do not give advice

This is the number one thing not to do. Oftentimes people are simply trying to give someone help while giving advice. Unless the person directly asks for your advice about a specific topic, do not provide advice. People need a person to listen to them during this time, not to tell them how to grieve or how to live their life.


Knowing how to start this important conversation and what to say and what not to say can help ease your own fear and anxiety during this time. Odds are you are also grieving over this diagnosis or loss at this time too and could use support yourself. It is important to know you are not alone during this process. If you or your loved one is struggling with the news of a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one, please consider contacting a licensed mental health professional who specializes in grief and bereavement.

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