The future might look bleak, but you need to move forward
We cope with all sorts of stressors every day, but when a loved one is diagnosed with a critical illness, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. It’s hard to cope with this kind of news, not only because we want our loved one to be healthy, but also because, on a personal level, it reminds us of our own mortality.
When faced with this kind of news, the first step is to let it sink in. Only then, once you’ve accepted it, can you truly guide and support your loved one through treatments and with their illness. It’s a difficult and painful process, which is why you need to do everything you can to preserve your relationship with your loved one. Communication is key in this regard.
SHOCK Let’s say you find out your spouse has cancer. Not only do you have to cope with your distress, you also have to cope with all the worries and concerns that go along with the news. You might worry about how the person’s death will affect your family financially, or you might start thinking about your own mortality. Regardless of what you have to go through, it’s important to give yourself time to absorb the shock. You also need to accept that the illness is going to change your life dramatically. Once reality has sunk in, you need to make sure you have the support of those around you to get through this difficult time. When people have a loved one who’s sick, they often forget that they need help themselves to avoid falling apart. It’s important to make sure you have a support network you can lean on and people you can talk to. Don’t hesitate to talk to a professional as well if you feel the need.
WHAT’S YOUR ROLE? Obviously your main role is providing guidance and support from both an emotional and an administrative standpoint. Often the support person will act as the point person as well. For instance, when the doctors need to deliver bad news, the person who’s sick may be in shock and be unable to react or think clearly. The support person then becomes the intermediary for passing on the information.
It’s important to realize that there’s a disconnect between the experience of the support person and their loved one. This is completely normal. It’s impossible to completely understand what the person who’s sick is going through. This creates a certain distance because the support person is trying to protect their loved one and maximize their chances of recovery… or at the very least, help them live the rest of their days as peacefully as possible. When taken to the extreme, however, this kind of disconnect can be damaging because it can alter the relationship between you and your loved one. It can also breed tension and resentment. The best way to cope with an illness is to maintain open, uncensored dialogue between you and your loved one. In short, you need to make sure you don’t completely alter the nature of your relationship.
COMMUNICATION When dealing with something as difficult as a critical illness, the only way for everyone to keep moving forward is through communication. Not only does communication help you understand one another’s experience, it also helps determine any changes that need to be made to the person’s living environment. It’s essential to have heart-to-heart discussions, but without overdramatizing the situation.
Not only does each illness have its own characteristics, the symptoms and progress of the illness vary from person to person as well. Health care professionals have a crucial role to play in this regard, so it’s important to use all the resources available. The health care team may include the following individuals.
Medical specialist. Ideally, a specialist in the illness involved who confirms the diagnosis, decides on the treatment and, when necessary, modifies the drug treatment plan. General practitioner. A physician who provides general medical care, who has a good understanding of the illness and provides follow-up. Nurse. This person can provide information, and is often more accessible than a physician. Psychologist. A specialist in mental and emotional health issues. Physiotherapist. This person assesses mobility, balance and posture, and recommends physical exercise programs. Occupational therapist. This professional assesses the living environment to help the person preserve their independence. Speech therapist. This person can work on speech problems, among other things. Dietician. A specialist who provides advice on healthy eating, and who helps resolve dietary issues associated with the illness and with prescribed drugs. Social worker. This person can help resolve financial or family problems, and help you access the resources and services available in your community. Pharmacist. This person can give you information about drugs and insurance plans.
Maintaining good communication also helps your loved one keep some of their decision-making power. Individuals who have a critical illness are grieving. They’re grieving the loss of their physical integrity, the loss of their job, their new role in the family, their reduced independence, etc. These losses are very hard to accept. To make things a bit easier, the person who’s sick needs to feel that they’re still considered a complete person, someone who’s capable of making decisions or, at the very least, involved in decisions as much as possible. By making decisions on their behalf, you’re not protecting them, you’re treating them like a child. Whatever happens, you need to stay as positive as possible. When the illness could be terminal, this can be an enormous challenge, but it’s the best way to help the person recover or, as the case may be, make the most of the time they have left. Even though it’s one of the most difficult things you’ll ever go through, try to think of a loved one’s illness as an opportunity for growth and understanding.
COMBATTING STRESS – CAUSED BY ILLNESS
When trying to cope with a loved one’s illness, stress is the number one enemy. It consumes a great deal of energy. As a result, it’s important to do everything you can to combat it so all your energy can go into supporting your loved one.
Talk about your concerns The people around you don’t always realize the extent of your loved one’s difficulties and how you’re affected by them. Talk to people you can trust. Not only will it help to have a sympathetic ear, but the people you confide in might also be able to suggest some good solutions.
Release your stress Even light physical activity can be an excellent antidote for stress. Improving your physical resistance will also give you more energy. But you don’t need to go out and start playing sports. Just taking a walk, dancing or gardening will do the trick.
Take a mental break from your problems Forget about your worries for a while by doing something fun like watching sports or a good movie. Activities like reading, writing, drawing or painting are also good pastimes that can give you a little “mental vacation”.
Ask for help Even though you’re not the one who’s sick, a loved one’s illness affects you too. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from family members, friends, or if necessary, external resources. Don’t waste your energy trying to cope with things on your own. You’ll need all the strength you have to support your loved one.