Johnathan Thomas, MBA, PhD, D.DIV
No one expects a loved one to be diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness. More often than not one is surprised by the shocking information that they have a terminal diagnosis. For this reason, accepting this information yourself, helping your loved one to accept this information, and sharing this information with other family and friends can be incredibly difficult.
If your loved one has been diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, here are some strategies that may help you, your loved one, and other friends and family members adjust to the new situation.
Accepting the diagnosis, yourself is the first step—one that you must take in order to be able to help your loved one.
- You will be reminded daily of the familiar saying “No one ever said it would be easy.”
- You will experience a range of emotions, including shock, anger, guilt, and sadness, and these will come and go unpredictably.
- The most important thing to remember is that all of these feelings are normal. Try to remind yourself that it is okay to feel these things.
- It is also important to let these feelings out. Some people do this naturally in the way they handle problems, while other individuals have to remind themselves to express feelings.
- Regardless of how expressive you are, you should find a way to share your feelings, whether it is in a journal to yourself or by sharing with friends, relatives, or a therapist.
Work to address your own feelings while keeping the needs of other family members and friends in mind. If you are not ready to share and others are, do your best to excuse yourself from the activity rather than rejecting it.
It is likely that you will be helping your loved on to accept the diagnosis at the same time that you are accepting it yourself. This can make helping your loved one more difficult. There are two aspects that you should take into consideration when helping your loved one to deal with the diagnosis.
First, remember that your loved one, like you, will be accepting and coping with the diagnosis one day at a time.
To help your loved one deal with each day, try to remember:
- Not to equate any physical incapability with mental incapacity
- Not to leave your loved one out of family matters just because you may have to in the future.
- Not to isolate your loved one
- Not to overlook your own needs because you are so busy helping your loved one.
- To give the smaller moments of each day the attention that they deserve
- That your loved one will probably experience his or her own feelings of fear and isolation, and that you cannot take these away.
Second, do not forget that you are an invaluable emotional support for your loved one. Listen attentively and encourage your loved one to continue to be physically and mentally active and to share his or her feelings. You can encourage open emotional communication with your loved one by:
- Accepting any negative feelings or fears that your loved one shares without responding with similar emotions.
- Asking your loved one how he or she is feeling.
- Being honest with him or her.
- Focusing on hope and the positive aspects of the situation.
- Giving empathy but not pity.
- Keeping your loved one informed about other family members and friends
- Knowing that all individuals have different emotional timetables.
- Listening to every story even if you have heard it before.
- Making yourself a presence by visiting often and sending cards or letters.
- Remembering that illness affects the body, mind, and soul of an individual.
- Respecting your loved one’s need for physical and emotion privacy.
- Touching your loved one in a caring way on the arm or shoulder.
Sharing The Diagnosis
As you help yourself and your loved one, you also may be asked to share the diagnosis with friends and family. Expect that each individual will react and adjust to the news differently. Some people will be ready to provide support—ranging from cooking meals to having emotional conversations—right away. Others will back away from the situation in an attempt to gain the privacy needed to understand the diagnosis. These are both normal ways of coping and you should be careful not to discount either.
Additionally, keep in mind that:
- People often only remember as much as they can handle emotionally. This means that you may need to repeat certain portions of the diagnosis, facts about your loved one’s current situation, or future predictions more than once.
- You need to be sensitive to your own needs as well as those of other family members.
The ability of family and friends to communicate in the past is a good prediction of how the group will continue to do so throughout the difficult diagnosis period. If the group cannot meet someone’s needs, it may help to seek outside support from a trusted friend or therapist.
- Your presence shows support, and your ability to sit and listen is important regardless of how much you are willing to share.
- Ultimately, the time schedule and communication of your loved one’s diagnosis is his or her decision.
Although coping with a diagnosis is not an easy task, you can help yourself, your loved one, and other family and friends by remembering the above tips. By keeping your own needs and the needs of your loved one and support group in mind, dealing with a diagnosis can be a surprisingly supportive, collaborative effort.