Coping with Stress

Coping with the Stress of a Life-Threatening Illness

Learning that your loved one has a life threatening illness and may not recover, has probably created huge upsets and stress in your life.  Struggling to come to terms with this new reality takes time and may feel overwhelming.  So many new situations to cope with – so many new health care team members to meet – so much information to digest – so many decisions to make – so many powerful emotions churning inside you.  All this while you are trying to manage symptoms and still cope with the ordinary tasks of living.  No wonder you may feel angry, shocked, numb, worried, miserable, tense, confused, frightened or very tired.  This is normal given the circumstances.  Despite all of these feelings, throughout this journey there may also be moments of great closeness, reminiscences of great poignancy, the sweetness of laughter, and time of warm comfort.

What many people don’t understand is that when you learn a loved one is dying, you begin to grieve the loss even while the patient is still alive.  It is helpful to recognize that both the person who is dying and those who will be left are grieving.  This process, often called anticipatory grief, can be confusing and difficult for all concerned.

For patients dealing with their diagnosis, illness, and thoughts of death, they are grieving the many losses of the past, present and future.  In their grief they will experience a wide range of thoughts, feelings and responses in the struggle to come to terms with this reality.  Due to the intensity of these reactions, people often feel frightened and overwhelmed and this is quite normal.  It often helps to know what to expect and that these reactions are a necessary part of grief.

Patients and family members are often in different emotional states at difference times, increasing the stress for everyone.  Family need to respect the patient’s way of coping and find ways to support him.  It is important for family to know their own limits and to ask for help or support.

Remember, you or your loved one’s reactions and feelings are probably very normal, but it may help to talk to your nurse, a counsellor, or Hospice, and/or ask for support and/or respite in order to cope with the situation.

Additional Reading

Why Are We in Denial About Death? by Linda Campanella