If we are honest, we aren’t quite sure what to say. We want to have all the right answers. We want to say something reassuring. We want to help. But we can’t “fix” the diagnosis of a terminal illness.
What we imagine will be uplifting and encouraging words before we say them come out as shallow responses. We may be there for only five minutes before we already want to leave. We desire to help our sick and dying loved ones, but without knowing how, we can end up hurting them instead.
God Has Called You There
God calls us to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:34). We strive to edify one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11), not looking to our own interests, “but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). God calls us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). And he gives us a great opportunity to obey these commands by sending us to a loved one who has a terminal illness.
As a hospice chaplain, I’ve walked with families who are on the receiving end of this kind of news and have found a few practical things that can help us care for loved ones who have a terminal illness.
1. Don’t be afraid to talk about death.
You cannot be much of a blessing to them if, having the opportunity to visit, you do not show up. Fear is something that often cripples us from going. But remember, God does not just call you to do this good work; he equips you to do it as well (2 Corinthians 9:8).
No one likes to talk about the hard stuff. Listening and being there is very important. It’s caring 101. Allowing them to share what’s on their mind and engaging in small talk can help those escape for the moment. But don’t be afraid to initiate and bring depth into the conversation too.
And as you lean in, if you start sensing tension, you can always change the subject. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t force them to. They will open up when they are ready. But even a failed attempt lets them know that you are serious about walking with them through the hard stuff.
2. Rehearse what God has done for them.
No matter how complicated the situation, people faced with death need the same thing that we do every day. They don’t need clichés or trite sayings. What they need is to be reminded of foundational truths that are found in God’s word.
Bring an attitude of certainty with you. It doesn’t matter how solid someone is in their relationship with the Lord or how long they have been walking with him: the knowledge of one’s impending death can be unnerving. They may need to lean upon your confidence until they get their legs back underneath them.
Always point to Jesus and God’s word, even if you feel like that isn’t what they want to hear right now. If we truly believe that hope is found in Jesus, we need to bring this hope to them as often as possible (1 Peter 3:15).
3. Make time to visit regularly.
Your visit could be the highlight of their day. As their health continues to decline, their ability to go and do things diminishes. Sitting around can become a daily routine.
Your life may be busy, but be willing to stay for a while. In this time, treat them like a friend and not an obligation. Realize that you have the opportunity to help influence the way they see this season through your listening, compassion, and encouragement.
4. Remind them to run to God every day.
Don’t think that giving homework and holding them accountable is too much to ask. Through conversation and time, assess ways you can walk with each other in faith (Romans 1:12). If they are going to distract themselves from their situation, let it be with holy things.
Walk through a book of the Bible with them. Encourage them to consider journaling their prayers. Pray together. Due to stress and change in routine, spiritual disciplines can be the first things to go. Help them reclaim them. When they do, they can be led afresh to the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Love them, walk with them, and continue to treat them like they are your brother or sister in Christ. Embody hope for them. When they are so close to meeting Jesus, they need not lose strength in the last mile of their race.