Terminal Illness

Written by Peter Hicks

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Very few people escape the experience of caring for a loved one who is terminally ill. Many of us will ourselves have to face death as a result of a period of illness. This is one of the darkest roads we have to walk, yet even in the darkness, love and faith and hope can bring light.


Both the terminally ill person and those closest to her or him will go through a range of reactions to the prospect of death and all that it means. This is not a fixed process, though there is often something of a pattern. It is helpful to realize that these are normal reactions to the prospect of death that almost everybody in this situation goes through.

1. Denial

Our bodies and minds are so made that our first reaction to the prospect of death is to deny it: ‘This can’t be happening to me’, ‘The diagnosis must be wrong.’ Such denial in the short term has a helpful cushioning effect: the news is so bad we can’t take it all on board at once, so we absorb it by stages. If it goes on too long, however, such denial is unhelpful; when we are ready, we need to face up to the prospect of death.

2. Anger

We are naturally hostile to the evil of death and all the suffering it brings. But since it is not easy to express hostility to an abstract concept like death, our anger frequently comes out in other ways. We feel anger at the doctor for not diagnosing the cancer sooner, or at God for allowing this to happen to us, or we lash out inexplicably at those who are nearest to us. Such expressions of anger can be very disturbing, especially if they are out of character. It is important to understand why they arise, and to do what we can to ensure they are channelled positively rather than destructively.

3. Fighting

Denial and anger are both expressions of our basic rejection of the prospect of death. So is a fighting spirit: ‘I’m not going to let this thing beat me.’ Again, this can be very positive if channelled rightly.

4. Fear

Understandably, there will be anxiety and fear about a whole range of things: pain, surgery, hospitals, how our loved ones will cope, losing control over our lives, and the experience of death itself.

5. Despair

As we work through the various stages of the rejection of death, we begin to emerge into the acceptance of its inevitability. Frequently this is marked by moods of depression and despair.

6. Acceptance

For many, the darkness of despair leads on to a period almost of peace, where the inevitability of death is accepted, and the last weeks or days of life take on a special value and beauty.

In our ministry to those who are terminally ill, we must be especially aware of the needs of their closest family members and friends. In some senses it is harder for them than for the person who is dying, and they will need just as much support. They too will go through a range of reactions and mood swings, but will feel they have to keep going for the sake of their loved one. The stress of caring may build up and lead to a major reaction when the person eventually dies.


The issue of prayer for healing is a huge one.  Here are some points to bear in mind.

In any of our prayers, we must not tell God what to do. Rather, we tell him what we would like him to do, and leave the doing to him.

Some people may not want us to pray for healing; they may want to ‘depart and be with Christ, which is better by far’ (Phil 1:23). If so, we should respect their wishes.

Sometimes a strong faith in healing is a form of denial, a refusal to face reality, which deprives the person of the opportunity to reach the stage of acceptance and peace and of preparing for death. There is no contradiction in praying for healing while at the same time encouraging those concerned to face the possibility and implications of death.

However great our faith, we should avoid telling people that they definitely will be healed. We are fallible human beings and may be mistaken. If we are convinced God is going to heal, it is much better to say, ‘I believe you’re going to be healed, but, of course, only God knows for sure.’

Confronted with the question, ‘Why has God let this happen to me?’, it is generally wisest to be honest and admit we don’t know. But use the opportunity to assure them of both the power and the love of God, and to affirm that he will not only give the strength to face each day at a time, but will somehow ensure that even the suffering and pain will play a part in his gracious purposes.

Our culture makes us reticent to speak about death. Don’t pressurize people to do so, but be willing to respond positively if they do. The reading of a passage like Philippians 1:20–24 can raise the issue in a sensitive way, or we can touch on it when we are praying with them.

Remember that those who appear to be unconscious may still be aware of what is going on and being said. Never talk about them at the bedside; always assume they can hear. Hold hands, speak as you normally would, and pray with them, even if there is no response.

Don’t worry about being there at the moment of death; it is rarely an experience to be feared. If it is appropriate, walk with them and their loved ones through the dark valley. Again, read appropriate scriptures, such as Psalm 23, and pray with them, committing them into the hands of the Lord.

Some Bible Passages on Death

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psa 23:4).

None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Rom 14:7–8).

… We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus … Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day … We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen … if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God … Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor 4:14, 16, 18; 5:1, 6–8).

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain … Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body(Phil 1:20–24).

[Jesus] shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14–15).

See also 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Revelation 21:1–22:6.

What Could I Say to Those Who Are Terminally Ill?

 Go gently on yourself. Accept that you will experience a wide range of emotions in your reaction to your illness, the prospect of dying, pain and so on. These are the natural responses of your body and your emotions to what you are going through. Seek to take them in your stride; don’t be afraid of them; God will give you the strength you need for each new situation.

Do all you can to ensure that this period is a beautiful one in your relationships with your loved ones and those who care for you. Aim to make it the richest ever.

Take the opportunity to put right all you can think of from the past. Restore broken relationships, write letters of apology, make reparation, draw very near to God.

Remember and relive and enjoy the good things of the past. Look through old photograph albums and diaries. Don’t worry if it upsets you; there’s nothing wrong with having a good cry.

Find and do something really worthwhile in your last days. Write a poem or a journal incorporating what you’ve learnt from life. Paint a picture. Befriend a lonely or hurting person. Help somebody to faith in Jesus.

Remember that this is a very tough time for those nearest to you. Do everything you can to encourage and help them.

When appropriate, talk about your feelings and fears with a minister or counsellor or someone who will understand. Be honest, and be willing to receive help in facing these fears and feelings and the prospect of death. You don’t have to walk this path alone; let others walk it with you and carry some of the burden.

Keep trusting in the power of prayer. If you find your faith runs low and you can’t pray for yourself, let us know. We will carry you on the shoulders of our faith and praying.

When you feel you can, talk through plans for the future with those closest to you. These may include funeral arrangements, but remember too to help equip your loved ones to face the future without you.

Hold on to the promise of God: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Heb 13:5).

 What Could I Say to Family and Close Friends of Those Who Are Terminally Ill?

 Accept that you will probably feel shock and emotional reaction to the illness as much as the person who is ill. Don’t feel bad about this; it is a natural reaction and an expression of your love for them.

Don’t feel that you must always put on a brave face in front of the person. There may well be some times when the best thing is for you both to have a good cry together.

Go easy on your own emotions. If you do feel it is right to be brave and cheerful in front of the person and the family and so on, do remember that you will still need to off-load the emotional stress somewhere. Have somebody – a close friend or a minister or a counsellor – with whom you can be really honest about your feelings, your fears, your questions and so on.

Get people to pray for you as well as for the person who is ill. You need the support and grace of God, too.

Be ready to receive help from all who offer it. You need the help, and for them it is their way of showing love.

Make it your aim that, despite all the pressures to the contrary, these few days or weeks will be full of the beauty and grace of God. Put each day and each need into his hands.

Be especially careful that minor things don’t get out of proportion. This is a time to major on the big things like love and mercy and goodness and the presence of the living God.

The article on Caring for Carers in the ‘Growing in Pastoring’ resource section of the Living Leadership website may be helpful.


Peter Hicks

 This is a chapter from Peter Hicks, What Could I Say?, published by Inter-Varsity Press UK, www.ivpbooks.com, and used by kind permission of the author and publisher.

 © Peter Hicks.


Helpful Books

 D. Clark and P. Emmett, When Someone you Love is Dying (Bethany House)
M. Stroud, Cancer Help (Lion)
Norman Warren, Paths of Peace (Lion; booklet suitable for giving away based on Psalm 23)

 There are several help groups for those suffering from specific illnesses. Details of these may be found in local phone books (Yellow Pages) under ‘Helplines’, or from doctors or hospitals. One of the best-known is Macmillan Cancer Relief, 89 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7UQ, tel 0808 808 0000, www.macmillan.org.uk.