Communication, Family of Origin, Family Ties, Medical Issues, Parenting, Relationships, Saying Goodbye, Therapy

Coping When a Loved One is Ill

When someone we love is affected by serious illness, it impacts everyone in that person’s circle – family, friends, colleagues. You may experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anger, and guilt. This article will discuss the experience of coping when a loved one is ill, and ways to care for yourself during this difficult time.

Whether or not your loved one’s illness is terminal, it is not unusual to go through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, originally conceptualized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.   These stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. You may experience some or all of these stages, in no particular order. Some may pop up more than once as you process this experience.

Denial: “This can’t be true. Let’s run more tests. Someone must have made a mistake.” “She looks too healthy to be that sick.”  It’s common to initially reject bad news about a loved one’s health. You can’t believe or understand it, and maybe you don’t want to. You just want someone to say it’s not true.

Anger: “Why him? It’s not fair. He’s a good person. He doesn’t deserve this!” No one wants to see someone they care about suffering or fighting to regain their health. It’s okay to be angry at the diagnosis and the circumstances. It can feel horribly unfair. You may even feel angry toward friends, family members, or the medical team.

Bargaining:  “You may try to negotiate your way out of the worry and hurt. “Please, God. I will do anything if you just make her well.”  Your mind may fill with thoughts of “What if…?” You may hope that if you hope hard enough, you will wake up to find this is just a bad dream.

Depression: “I feel empty inside. Why go on? I don’t enjoy anything anymore.”  Depression is a normal reaction to a sad, frightening situation. You may find yourself feeling utterly hopeless, isolating yourself from others, and experiencing deep sadness much of the time. This is a difficult stage, and can feel endless.

Acceptance: “I can make it through today. I am reaching out for support and taking care of myself.” Acceptance doesn’t mean that you are okay with your loved one’s diagnosis or treatment. Only that you are finding a bit of a balance with self-care and living with this stressful situation.

Some things to remember when a loved one is ill:

Become proactive – learn about the illness, possible treatments, and outcomes. Ask questions and expect answers. Bring a list of concerns or things you need to know to any meetings with the medical team. You may be feeling completely helpless right now. Information can help.

Accept support – whether it is from doctors and nurses, friends and family, therapists or clergy, or from support groups – knowing you are not alone can be a great help right now. If a friend says “What can I do to help?” let them know what you need.

Talk about it – holding feelings like fear, anger, and guilt inside can do more harm than good. You can talk to others, journal, blog, go to a support group, or see a therapist. If your loved one is in the hospital, they may have licensed social workers on staff to listen and offer support.

Take care of yourself – as much as you can, get enough food, sleep, interaction with others, and support as you can. It is normal to want to spend every moment at a loved one’s bedside, and neglect your own health in the process. Soon, you become so depleted that your functioning is impaired. Be with your loved one as much as you can, but don’t neglect your own mental and physical wellbeing.

Connect with your loved one. They may need cheering up, or want to talk. They may just want to watch TV together or know you are nearby. Whatever works for you, make the most of the time you have together. If this is not possible for whatever reason (distance, estrangement), you can let them know you are thinking of them in any way that works for you.

If children are involved, explain the situation to them in terms they can understand. If they are to visit the hospital, help them in advance know what they will see and what to expect. Children can react with sadness, jealousy, acting out, and many other ways to express their discomfort and worry. Try to keep their normal structure intact as much as you can. Allow them to talk and ask questions if they want to.

A serious illness affecting someone you care about can be very stressful. I welcome your thoughts for others going through this experience – what worked for you?


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