Every bereavement is unique and painful, but when someone dies with cancer relatives and friends may have already faced difficult or traumatic experiences which can have deep emotional and physical effects.
Before someone dies of cancer
Some cancer deaths happen very quickly, but often when someone dies of cancer they have been ill for some time. There is likely to have a been a long journey, sometimes living with the complicated side effects of treatments. There may have been long periods of hope before an illness has become not treatable and during this time people can experience a range of experiences and feelings. This can have a huge physical and emotional effect on grief, both before and after someone dies.
- When someone has a terminal illness it is normal to experience some grief beforehand. Some people find they don’t consider the future, but it is also common to be overwhelmed with fear about living without your friend or relative. Depending on the progression of the cancer there may also be losses along the way, as someone’s role in your life, and sometimes even their personality, changes.
- Many close relatives or friends of those with cancer may have to take on caring roles and responsibilities, and these can be exhausting both mentally and physically. It is very difficult to see someone you care about in pain, and some experiences can be traumatic.
- Caring naturally can change the relationship between people and this can be another form of loss. Those without caring responsibilities will still experience inevitable changes in a relationship with someone who is seriously ill and facing their own death.
- Sometimes those who are caring for someone can become very isolated from their usual support. Sometimes just the fact of caring leaves little time or energy, and sometimes the cares or concerns of those who are not going through the same experiences may make it feel like you cannot connect.
Nothing can take away the pain of seeing someone you care about suffer, but talking honestly about what you are experiencing with trusted friends or support organisations can help. Do ask for and accept help where you can. Ask all those who are involved in the care of your friend or relative what is available from care services and charities in your area. There may be talking or support services you are not aware of.
Feelings after someone dies of cancer
A wide range of feelings are very common after someone dies, including numbness, anger, guilt, pain, and depression. People also often experience physical effects.
When someone dies of cancer you may also experience some of the following.
Trauma: the death or the experience of caring for someone with cancer may have been traumatic. Read more about traumatic death
Relief: if someone has been ill for a long time it is normal to feel some relief that their friend or relative is no longer suffering, or that the hard work of caring for them has eased. These feelings can alternate with intense pain, and also cause some people to feel very guilty.
Loss of role: if you have been very involved with someone’s care the change in your role is an additional loss. Again it is very normal to alternate between some relief and a sense of loss of purpose.
How you can support yourself
1. Talk to someone
Talking can be really helpful, even if it is over the phone, internet or social media. Often family or friends can help. You might also be able to talk to someone in your community, or to a faith or spiritual leader. Talk to your GP if your health is suffering. Cruse can also help.
2. Find ways to remember them
It can help to think of ways you can remember the person who has died, and keep them as part of your life. This might mean keeping a few special possessions, creating a memory box or special album of pictures, or organising a time for family and friends to come together and remember.
3. Plan ahead on anniversaries
Birthdays, anniversaries and special days can be difficult after someone close to us dies. It can help to think in advance about how you are going to manage. Read our tips on coping with anniversaries.
How can you help someone after their friend or relative dies of cancer?
1. Stay in contact
Try to stay in contact with bereaved friends and family and let them know you’re thinking about them. If someone has lost an older person, try not to say things like ‘at least he had a good innings’ or ‘it must be a relief they are no longer suffering’. Even when someone dies peacefully after a long happy life it can still be both shocking and painful. Read our tips on what to say.
2. Let them discuss their feelings
Allow them to be open about their grief, their experiences and about the person who has died – talking can be one of the most helpful things after someone dies.
3. Be there for important dates
You might like to make a note of significant dates like birthdays, the anniversary of the death, and special days (eg Mothers/Fathers Day if appropriate), and let them know you are thinking of them.
4. Suggest useful organisations
Offer practical help if you think they need it, or let them know about Cruse if they are struggling.