Talking to family members when someone is very sick or chronically ill can be very stressful and emotionally charged. It is a common myth that a family facing a serious health crisis will become closer because of the trauma they are experiencing together. In reality, this is often not the case. Sometimes we are so afraid of what to say that it is easier to avoid the conversation entirely. But this doesn’t solve the problem, and if anything, drives a deeper wedge between family members.
People respond to stress and emotional challenges differently, and when combined with the fact that most families have no experience sharing such challenging feelings with one another, the result is that conversations about important topics just don’t seem to happen. When they do, there may be misunderstandings because people tend to interpret the emotional responses of those close to them through the lens of how they themselves would cope with the same situation.
What is a good rule of thumb? Saying something is usually better than saying nothing. It helps everyone feel connected and emotionally stronger, even if sharing these thoughts and feelings seem awkward at first. As support people, we may never know the right thing to say, but the sheer act of reaching out helps the loved one feel better understood and less isolated.
Avoid the worst pitfalls, such as “I know how you feel” or “Try to look on the bright side.” Hearing this can make anyone cringe, and can even be more painful than solitude or hearing nothing. Asking open-ended questions that invite more sharing helps our loved ones feel acknowledged and validated, rather than cut-off by comments, which, however well intentioned, basically put the brakes on any meaningful conversation.
“We give our clients tools to help them communicate with their families,” says Amy Goldsbury, MSW and a Cancer CAREpoint social worker. “We listen to their concerns and give them guidance on what they might say.” Here are a few ideas for caregivers and family members from Goldsbury and her colleague, Laura Crutchlow, LCSW:
- Be honest with children. It is okay to deliver information about the disease in an age appropriate way. “Children can sense when something is going on that they haven’t been told about. They will imagine what it could be – which is often worse than the truth,” Crutchlow explains. “You don’t have to have an answer for all of their questions. You can say ‘I have to think about that’, or ‘I will find the answer and let you know.’ Just be sure to get back to them soon.”
- Don’t be afraid to express your emotions in front of your children–even crying in front of your child is OK. “You are modeling how to express your feelings in a healthy way,” says Goldsbury, “Even crying, if that is what you feel like doing.”
- As for reaching out for support for yourself, consider using websites such as CarePages or CaringBridge to update family and friends on your journey. “It is a convenient way to give people in your life information without having to retell the story over and over,” explains Laura. Sharing how you feel in addition to the facts can deepen the emotional support you draw.
- Connect to someone outside of the family. It is so important to continue to maintain your support network of friends and family, but this may not be all you need. Consider a support group for yourself, as well as one for other members of the family (such as siblings’ groups), in addition to a support group for the patient. “Separate support groups for patients, siblings, and parents/caregivers provide a safe, caring environment outside the family where feelings and fears can be openly and honestly shared,” explains Rob Tufel, Executive Director of CancerCARE Point.
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