Making Sense of Support: When a Loved One is Sick

I cannot imagine what it feels like to be bald. I’m sitting here with a full head of hair.  I must shamefully admit I’m guilty of complaining about how thin my hair is. And yes, I have nearly lost it when I discover my dry shampoo is out. Oftentimes, things that were once important to us become trivial when we gain “life event perspective.”  It turns out I just invented this phrase (Yeah me!) because I tried googling it and nothing came up. But, it’s the term I’m using to explain how when devastating things happen in life, we come to realize other things are truly not that big of a deal.

My cousin is bald right now. I hate that she is bald. I actually have two bald cousins. One because her sister is her “bold supporter” and shaved her own head bald. And my other cousin has cancer. Breast cancer. Sadly, we (my Grandmother Harriett’s clan) all knew  one or more of us would get it. The C word is no stranger to my family. I lost my mom, my aunt and my grandmother all within a 9 month period, all to the–in my opinion–most awful C word in the dictionary. So when my oldest matriculariel cousin “Lolo” (as we refer to her) got cancer she actually told me, “Well, we knew one of us will get it, why not me?”   She is just like that: a selfless, take-one-for-the-team, genuine kind of soul. It’s not abnormal for someone like her to have that response but the reality is it sucks that any of us had to get it.

I have known so many people with cancer. Some survivors, some not as lucky.  So I decided to write this blog about how one can support their loved one who is fighting the fight of their life. I even asked some people who are currently in the battle, some who are supporting a loved one in the battle, and those who have kicked cancer’s ass for their advice, because with this topic they are the real professionals.

Some of the tips they shared with me:

“Each day is different with side effects, so asking how I am feeling and what I need/want is helpful. Don’t assume….being sensitive and compassionate is key. I may be feeling ok, but there are mental challenges I may be going through so having a partner being understanding is important. I may not be able to ask for help, so having a partner making suggestions or offering to help is nice, I don’t want to bother anyone.  A loving supportive partner is key…a sense of humor helps a lot too!!”

“When my spouse asks how he can help me. Does he need me to be strong right now? Or is okay for me to share my fear, sadness, anger?”
(One of the things I teach many of my clients is to ask their partners if they need an ear, mouth, or a shoulder.  Translation: Ear – someone to just listen and not say a word unless it’s to reiterate they are hearing what is being said. Mouth – advice or opinion about a certain situation. Shoulder – to cry on, to lean on, and someone to just be physically caring and comforting.)

“It was so helpful when I was going through treatments to not be expected to help with any chores, and to not even have to ask my spouse to do it, he just did.”

“I didn’t want to make any plans or major decisions because I didn’t know what each day would bring and how my body would feel. So my wife and I and our children learned to live one day at a time. It’s a life lesson we still try to live by even though my cancer is in remission.”
(My advice to clients going through cancer or any other major stress issue for that matter, is to figure out what is front burner and what is back burner stuff. Prioritize the important and let go of non-essentials.)

“I loved mostly when I was done putting on a brave face for most everyone in my life, and I would get into bed with my wife and just cry, be sad and be scared in the comfort of her arms.  I knew she could take it and I often doubted others could.”
(Cancer is such a scary, uncertain, horrific thing to deal with for all involved. The ability to be open and honest about feelings with your safe people can make all the difference in the world. In my opinion, this is not the time to be stoic. Let it out. Those who can take it will gather around you and help. Those who can’t should stick to cleaning your house or picking up your groceries!)

“I recommend going on lots of dates and spending time with those you love. The day after my spouse got cancer we made a bucket list. We have checked off a few already and strive to do all of them when my wife’s energy allows.”

Other helpful ideas  I share with clients who are having major health issues and illness:

Take notes. Either with your phone or on paper, take notes at doctors appointments and repeat back to the doctor for clarity. Many times people hear very different messages from what their doctor is trying to convey.  Ask any and all questions, that is why the doctors are there.

Enlist help. Often people say “What can I do to help?” Put this question to the test. Have a list ready to go, such as grocery shop, clean your house, fix something around your house, pick up prescriptions, drive you to treatments or doctors appointments, watch the kids, bring meals, etc.. I borrowed this idea from my Aunt Jane and it is amazing to see people’s reactions. You will soon find out who really wants to help and who is just asking the obligatory question.

Lastly one of my favorite sayings is “live today as if it were your last.” Although not totally realistic, develop part of this ideal and tell those you love how important they are to you, how much you love and cherish them. Anytime I take a big trip without my family or have surgery I write a letter that I would want read at my funeral. Weird, I know, but I am always glad I wrote it just in case. I also keep them to look back on different times in my life and realize how lucky I am…thin hair and all.

ADD version

  • Hearing the words “You have cancer” is always a life changing moment. Here are a few tips to help you support a loved one with cancer straight from the true experts.
  • Be sensitive and compassionate.
  • Ask if your loved one needs an ear, a mouth or a shoulder.
  • Be real with your emotions and find safe people to express them to; be a safe person to your loved one with cancer.
  • Prioritize what is important.
  • Enlist help and take it when it’s offered.
  • Live today like it’s your last.

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