Consoling the Family and Loved Ones

Research shows that a family-system perspective can work well for those experiencing anticipatory grief — a phenomenon that is common for patients and loved ones both. This model aims, “to optimize cohesion, communication (of thoughts and feelings), and the handling of conflict while promoting the sharing of grief and mutual support.”6 Because of a nurse’s unique relationship with patients, operating between the science of medicine and the holistic nature of suffering, these findings can help inform the approach taken with end-of-life family units. This conversation can stem from a medical perspective: what to expect the dying process to feel like for the patient.

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Introducing some conversations early, before the family becomes busy with holiday preparations, can be helpful. Discussing concerns related to the patient’s affairs (eg, the location of important documents, who to contact about the will, or the patient’s dying wishes) beforehand is also helpful. Talking about concrete matters such as these in a safe space can make the family more comfortable.

Encouraging and normalizing these conversations can help patients and loved ones be more honest in discussing what they would like to do during the holiday. In turn, this conversation can create an environment where each family member can celebrate the season while also giving voice to the sadness; allowing a mix of feelings and thereby some closure softening future reflections.

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Advice for the Bereavement Phase

Losing a loved one is universally difficult to experience. If loved ones are willing to engage in a discussion with you about end of life and bereavement, you can assist them by advising them of bereavement resources ahead of time. Individual and group counseling are both great places to process grief in the months after becoming bereaved.

CancerCare offers free educational resources and face-to-face counseling for the bereaved in the New York City area, where our offices are located, as well as online bereavement support groups nationally. All these services are provided by oncology social workers. A hospice social worker or oncology social worker from the patient’s treatment center can also refer you to local bereavement resources.


1. Christensen J. Why do more people die at Christmas, New Year’s? CNN website. Accessed November 19, 2018.

2. Rowe R, Calnan M. (2006, February 01). Trust relations in health care — the new agenda. Eur J Public Health. 2006;16(1):4-6.

3. Flynn T. Five percent of Americans celebrate no December holiday. CFI. Center for Inquiry website. Accessed November 19, 2018.

4. Lipka M, Masci D. 5 facts about Christmas in America [FactTank: News in the Numbers]. Pew Research Center website. Accessed November 19, 2018.

5. Talking about death and dying. Dying Matters website. Accessed November 19, 2018.

6. Kissane D, Lichtenthal WG, Zaider T. Family care before and after bereavement. Omega (Westport). 2007-2008;56(1):21–32.