How family and friends can help
Note: If you’re the main person looking after someone who has a terminal illness (their carer), our page Your own needs as a carer has more information about support available for you.
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When a family member or friend is diagnosed with a terminal illness it’s usually a shock for everyone. You may experience different emotions. You might worry that you don’t know what to do to help, or what to say to them. This page includes things you can do that can help.
Listening to your family member or friend who’s ill and giving them your full attention is important. You may not know what to say or how to comfort or reassure them. But often just being there will help.
One of the things they may want most is to feel normal and have the same relationship with you as before. They may want to talk about their diagnosis but they may not. If you’re not sure, you could let them lead the conversation. Or ask a question such as: “Is there anything you would like to talk about today?” Or “Is there anything worrying you at the moment?”
If you’re supporting their carer, it’s helpful to understand what they might be going through. It’s likely to be an emotionally and physically demanding time for them. They may be very worried and upset. And they may also be dealing with practical things such as applying for benefits, sorting out a will or Power of Attorney, or accessing health services.
The carer may need someone to listen to them. You could sit down for a cup of tea if they want to chat. They may appreciate the chance to talk about their feelings. Or they may prefer to talk about something completely different, such as activities they enjoy. It can be helpful to know that you’re there to support them.
People sometimes worry that they are boring others when they talk, or they’re a burden. It can be helpful to make it clear that’s not the case. You could say things like: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve told me things before. If it helps you to talk, I’m here to listen.”Sometimes you might be in a rush. If you don’t have time to listen, you could say: “I only have a few minutes to talk today, but could we make some time later in the week?” Often people feel more comfortable and ready to talk if they know they’re not keeping you from something.
The carer might need time to relax or have a break from caring. They might want to do something like go for a walk or meet a friend. You could offer to stay in the house with the person who’s ill so that they can have some time to themselves. For more information about supporting carers when they need time off, see our page Respite breaks for carers and taking time out.
It can be helpful to do small practical tasks that the person or their carer would otherwise need to do themselves. You might be able to help with:
- making a meal
- doing the washing up
- driving them to hospital or medical appointments
- helping look after their children and pets
- doing the laundry
- doing the shopping
- watering the plants
- mowing the lawn
- looking things up online
- cleaning and vacuuming
- posting forms and applications
- returning library books and audio books
- any small task that saves the carer a little time and energy.
If you are good at something, see if it could be of use. For example, if you are good with figures you could help with paying bills or helping them apply for benefits. If you can bake, you could make a cake or some biscuits for your visit.
The internet is a good resource for discovering ways to be supportive. For example, a website called Pinterest allows users to share ideas and tips using online pinboards, such as these Pinterest boards about how to be supportive.
You might also be able to help with day-to-day caring, such as helping someone take medication or keep comfortable in bed. It’s especially important to ask the person who’s ill and their carer before you help with these tasks, as they need to decide who helps with which tasks. Don’t offer to help with anything you don’t feel comfortable or confident doing. You can read more about these tasks on our pages about Day to day caring.
It’s important to offer before you do these things to help. Your family member or friend, or their carer, may feel a lack of control if you do things for them without asking first. And don’t insist on helping if they or their carer don’t seem keen.
It can help to identify specific tasks you could do, rather than asking a general question. For example, you could try asking: “Can I walk the dog?” or “Can I do the shopping?”, rather than: “Is there anything I can do?”
You could also think of different ways you can support them. Someone might not feel comfortable having you do their washing up, but wouldn’t mind you mowing the lawn or returning library books.
Sometimes people prefer not to accept help. Keeping busy may be an important coping strategy for them. Or it may feel important to them to be as independent as possible. If your family member or friend or their carer refuse your help, respect their wishes. But don’t be afraid to offer support again in future. Sometimes knowing that someone is concerned and is offering to help is as valuable as the help itself. They may be more able to accept support from you at a later stage.
If the person’s situation is changing quickly, it’s best not to suggest a visit too far in advance. They may be too ill to see visitors. You could suggest a visit for the next day and check on the day that it’s still okay to come.
It’s a good idea to create a rota if several different people want to do practical things to help. Carers UK has produced Jointly , a phone app you can download for £2.99, that can help you coordinate the care of a family member or friend.
Sometimes your family member or friend will feel tired or just want some peace and time to themselves. If you need to be in their room, try not to disturb them by talking, tidying or moving around too much.
In the later stages of their illness, they’re likely to be spending a lot of time in one room. Remember that although they may enjoy having company, they may not want to talk all the time.
A good approach could be to sit with your friend or family member, reading or doing another quiet activity. You’ll be there if they need you or would like to have a conversation. This may allow their main carer to have a break.
Give your family member or friend the opportunity to enjoy activities they like doing by themselves, like listening to music, watching TV, reading, doing the crossword, playing Sudoku or being online.
Talk to your friend or family member about how much time they might like by themselves and remember this might change over time.
As well as visiting your friend or family member, you can also send a text or a card to let them know you’re thinking of them.
When a family member or friend is living with a terminal illness it can be a difficult experience for you too.
You may also find that other friends and family have different ways of supporting the person who is ill. Some may visit frequently and others less so. People react in different ways to the situation and this is normal.
You might find it helpful to join an online forum or local support group to share experiences with other people in a similar situation.
- Alzheimer's Society online community – for people affected by dementia
- Macmillan’s online community – for people affected by cancer
- Carers UK online forum
You can find more organisations with online communities in our Directory of Support.
Alternatively, you can speak with our trained staff via the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309.
About this information
Marie Curie’s Information and Support team has produced this information with help from:
- Head of Clinical Quality, Marie Curie
- Clinical Psychologist, Marie Curie
- Kim Fowler, Clinical Nurse Manager, Marie Curie
- Our Readers' Panel volunteers.
It's not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.
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