Talking To A Loved One Who Has A Terminal Illness

5 Minute Read

© Danielle Robertson Consulting Pty Ltd t/as DR Care Solutions

In a recent blog, I gave advice on the best approaches I have witnessed on how terminally ill people raise and discuss their illness with their loved ones.

This week, coinciding with “Dying to Know Day”[1], the advice is to the other party – the loved ones and close friends. What protocols should you follow in raising the topic of death and end of life plans with a terminally ill loved one?

Whether it’s our easy-going nature and “she’ll be right” approach, one fact is evident – Australians avoid the topic of death. Around 75% of us don’t touch it and this shows through in our lack of planning. Very few Australians have end of life treatment and care plans, and almost half die without a Will.

The Australian Government is on to the issue with helpful websites on end-of-life planning[2], conversation starters[3], and grief and bereavement advice[4]. The NSW Government is one of a number of funders behind this week’s “Dying to Know Day” run by the creative, awareness-raising team at The Groundswell Project.

The point to funding these initiatives is to help the loved ones left behind to deal with their grief, and avoid the stresses and costs of a loved one’s unplanned death. This point is clearly made in this moving ABC World News clip:


During my 35 years in the care sector, I have observed some good, and not so good, ways of raising the topic of death and end of life planning in a range of scenarios. Here are some of my tips on how to discuss death with a loved one with a terminal illness.

  1. You need to have a good relationship with the person. If you don’t hold that relationship, turn to someone who does. This could be someone else in the family, or it could be the person’s GP, solicitor or accountant. It could be a third-party care consultant, like myself. Ask this person to raise the topic of end-of-life planning.
  2. Create the right setting for the conversation. Make sure there are no distractions – turn off all mobile phones in the room, turn off the television or radio.
  3. Do not lead the conversation. Let your terminally ill loved one lead the conversation. Do this with open questions like: “When you think of your future, is there anything you’re scared or frightened about?” or “When you think about things, past or present, what’s on your mind?” If they don’t open up, don’t push too hard. Leave the conversation for another day.
  4. Most people who are dying know they are dying. They avoid the topic so that they don’t make you feel uncomfortable or cause you to suffer. When visiting a terminally-ill loved one, put on a brave face and show you can cope.
  5. Act normally and listen. Don’t push your ideas or agenda on the terminally ill person. It’s best not to:

    - Speak of it being a tragedy;
    - Ask them to hang in there and fight;
    - Speak of alternative cures;
    - Provide religious verse; or
    - Fill the room with idle chit chat.

    Your loved one has limited time. Give them this time to make their own choices. Just be there and listen.
  6. Try to bring happiness to the scene. Do not ignite self-pity in your love one and do not bring any other issues for them to deal with, such as your grief and depressive state. If you feel weepy during a visit or on a call, excuse yourself until you feel recovered, and then re-enter the room or call back.
  7. Bring laughter to the room. Come to the room with a cache of happy adventures or gaffes you shared together and bring some laughter to the room. Leave a hard copy photo of that time with them.
  8. If your loved one raises the topic of end of life planning, don’t brush off the conversation. Let the person know you are willing to listen and keep the conversation flowing. Do not change the topic even if someone in the room starts crying. Listen carefully and be aware that your loved one may repeat themselves. This is common when people are emotional. Offer to note down their wishes and follow up on organising the paperwork.
  9. Offer to bring along an end-of-life planning checklist on your next visit, such as our DR Care Solutions End-of-Life Planning Checklist:- access a copy by clicking on the image below:
    End-of-Life Planning Checklist


If you wish to take part in conversations around End of Life, consider participating in some of the “Dying to Know” community events[5] hosted throughout this month.

If you need support and guidance on planning care for the end of life, please feel free to contact me, Danielle Robertson at DR Care Solutions, for an initial discussion on how to set up the right care, support and assistance at the right time and in the right place.  



[1] Dying To Know Day 8 August 2021
[2] Advance Care Planning Australia
[3] Dying To Talk
[4] Australian Centre for Grief & Bereavement
[5] The Groundswell Project: D2K Day Events 2021


Danielle Robertson

Danielle Robertson

Working with you and your support network to get the right care outcomes for you and your loved ones. Danielle Robertson is founder and CEO of DR Care Solutions, offering aged care and disability care concierge services and expertise on how to set up the right care, support and assistance for your loved one, at the right time and in the right place. Danielle's experience in the Australian care sector spans over three and a half decades. Now that's a lot of experience, wisdom and networks!