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Terminal illness and death

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Helping a person come to terms with dying can be demanding, both physically and emotionally. It's essential that you get the support you need both as a carer and as a member of the patient's family.

Who can help?

You may have already come across the term ‘ palliative care’. It’s a special type of care for people who have a serious, progressive illness. The aim of palliative care is to ease pain and other distressing symptoms, allowing patients to live as comfortably as they can in their final days. But palliative care also addresses the psychological and spiritual needs of a person facing the end of life, and the needs of the person caring for them.

There are now specialist teams trained in palliative care that can help someone who wants to die in their own home, or who needs hospice care. Much of the support is provided by nurses, and many are funded by charities such as Marie Curie Cancer Care and Macmillan Cancer Support. Other teams are NHS funded, and work with GPs, hospital doctors and district nurses.

Making a living will

A living will is sometimes also known as an ‘advance directive’ or ‘advance statement’. It’s a written statement that sets out what treatment or care a person would like to be given if they no longer have the capacity to make their own decisions. While a living will is not legally binding on health professionals, it may help them understand a person’s preferences. Your GP or hospital doctor can help the person you care for to decide what to put in a living will.

The person you care for can also decide who will make decisions on their behalf should they become unable to make them in the future, by appointing one or more people as Attorneys through a legal document called a 'Lasting Power of Attorney'. A 'Lasting Power of Attorney Personal Welfare' allows someone to make decisions about healthcare for another person. For more information on this, contact the Office of the Public Guardian.

Steps after death

There are certain practicalities that need to happen after a person has died. These often need to be carried out at a time of personal distress, so you might find it easier to read about them now. That way you may feel more prepared to make the relevant decisions when the time comes. We've listed some of the things that need to be considered below:

Verification - First, you need to contact your GP to get the death verified, if there isn’t a health professional present when it happens. In addition, a GP will need to certify the death and complete a medical certificate confirming the cause of death. This will allow you to register the death, obtain a death certificate and arrange the funeral. In some cases, the GP may refer the death to the coroner instead of signing the death certificate. It may be necessary if the GP has not seen the patient during the previous two weeks.

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