When a Friend has Terminal Illness

October 10, 2021

When someone you know becomes terminally ill, you may feel helpless or inadequate. You may not know what to say or do. How should I respond and behave? 

Here are some helpful suggestions: 

  • Call and ask if it is okay to visit. Let your friend make the decision. Now is the time when your friendship can help keep loneliness at bay and fear at a distance 
  • Don’t ask questions. Listen to what your friend has to say. Listen long and hard. Silence often speaks louder than words.  
  • Hold your friend’s hand as a show of friendship if he or she allows. Ask permission to do it. Respond to your friend’s emotions. Cry if you can when your friend cries. Laugh when your friend laughs. It is healthy to share these intimate experiences. They enrich you both 
  • A terminally ill person may experience extreme swings of mood. You have to exercise extra patience and compassion when dealing with him or her. You must be prepared to go that extra mile. Their whole world is turned upside down. Confusion and frustration toss their hearts and minds about 
  • Be prepared for your friend to get angry with you for “no obvious reason” although it feels that you have been there and done everything you could. Be the sponge. Remember, anger and frustration are often taken out on the people most loved because it is safe and will be understood. They know no punches will be returned 
  • Encourage your friend to make decisions. Illness causes a loss of control over many aspects of life. Don’t dent your friend’s right to make decisions, no matter how simple or silly they may seem to you 
  • Don’t lecture or direct your frustration and anger at your friend if you think he or she is handling the illness in a way you think is inappropriate. You may not understand what the feelings are and why certain choices are made. Try to listen more and find out why your friend is reacting that way 
  • Tell your friend that acceptance of the illness should not be confused with defeat. This acceptance may free your friend to make rational decisions about many things that need to be done.  

What shall I say? 

  • You can ask about the illness but be sensitive to whether your friend wants to discuss it.  You can find out by asking, “would you like to talk about how you are feeling?” If he or she indicates no, just leave it 
  • You can ask if your friend has any appetite for dessert or snacks since most times, they don’t feel much like eating. But they may suddenly remember a favourite kueh or tongsui  he or she used to like to eat. Then ask if he or she wants you to get them that kueh or tongsui even that same day if it is possible to do so 
  • You don’t always have to talk. It is okay to sit together and listen to music, or read a book or magazine on subsequent visits 
  • If your friend’s appearance has changed, don’t ignore it but be gentle and realistic. Never lie and say, “you look so good” when your friend clearly has a sunken face or looks very pale. You can say if it's true that she or he looks better than yesterday or when you last saw him or her although she or he has lost weight. Maybe some colour has returned to the lips. Try and notice something positive like the hair has stopped falling or his or her hand is softer or she or he has eaten half a bowl of porridge when she or he could not swallow before. The main thing is to notice positive developments no matter how small 
  • You can talk with your friend about tomorrow or next week or next year what he or she would like to do. It is good to look forward to the future without denying the reality of today. 

What can I practically do?  

  • Can you take your friend somewhere? Transportation may be needed for a treatment when sometimes a family member is unable to do it. Organise among a few friends to standby when the family member asks for help to take your friend for treatment. You do not have to do it always but being there when no one can do it will truly help your friend and family 
  • Can your friend go to a restaurant in a mall? Organise a lunch with two or three friends at a restaurant that your friend used to frequent before the illness. Arrange suitable transportation to have that outing. It will make a great difference to your friend to have a chance to eat out again 
  • Or arrange with two or three friends to take your friend to have coffee at your friend’s  favourite café. The reason for two or three persons to be involved is that if your friend needs to be lifted or assisted to and from a wheelchair, it is best that you do not do it alone. Prevention of a fall is most important not just for your friend but for yourself too. Your friend can faint or suddenly collapse during the outing and needs urgent help. Two or three persons at hand will surely be useful and provide immediate support to one another 
  • If your friend has children, you can ask your friend what is the most needed thing he or she would like someone to do for his or her child? Offer only what help you can give. Do not try to do the impossible or promise more than what you can deliver. You have your own responsibilities in your family or workplace. Your friend does not expect that you will fill his or her place. All he or she just needs is just certain things to be done that are the most important. When you are unable to accede to any request, be honest about it and say you will try and find someone who can. Your friend will appreciate that 
  • The above also applies if your friend has an aged parent at home. Your friend may have been the main caregiver and is now unable to do what he or she has been doing because of the illness. It is a double whammy to him or her and any help to relieve their sense of helplessness is an emotional comfort and support especially when practical help is rendered   
  • Know your friend’s limitations over time. Have a record book to place at your friend’s tableside to record daily intake of medications and side effects, blood pressure and temperature, oxygen levels and heart beats, pains and new reactions to food or movements. This will help family and close friends who visit often to know how your friend is doing 
  • Modern medicine can go a long way to relieving suffering. There is no point in suffering needlessly because pain can be dealt with by a proper pain relief regime. There are hospice organisations in Malaysia that your friend can register with for nursing and pain relief assistance. For example: 
    Hospice Malaysia Hospice Council at : 

    [email protected] c/o Kasih Hospice Foundation
    No 16 SS3/29, Petaling Jaya, Selangor 47300 
    Hospis Malaysia at 
    Hospis Malaysia (603-9133 3936)
    2 Jalan 4/96, off Jalan Sekuci
    Taman Sri Bahtera Cheras
    56100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 
    Assunta Palliative Care Centre (AsPaCC) at 
    Assunta Palliative Care Centre ( AsPaCC) - ICPCN 
    Tel: 60379317298
    83 Jalan Templer, 46990 Petaling Jaya, Selangor D.E. 
    Hospis Klang at Home | hospiceklang PT140457
    Persiaran Delima / KS 09 
    Kota Bayu Emas, 41200 Klang, Selangor 
    Tel: 33184774, 012-6223073 / Fax: 33194664 
    Email: [email protected] 

Render whatever help you can because it means a lot to someone who is terminally ill. 

This article is part of our ongoing research into a future publication by Sparrow Publishing House on Mental Healthcare in Malaysia.