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Handbook for Mortals : Enduring and Changing

About Relationships

By nature, we are social beings and define ourselves by our relationships: parent, child, spouse, sibling, friend, and so forth. These relationships remain crucial when you are ill. But your illness can improve them or shatter them. How these relationships emerge from this experience will depend on how healthy they were to begin with and how open all those involved are willing to be. Maintaining connections to those you care about is conducive to a feeling of well-being. The practical support that others are willing to give you, along with their love and concern, can be an important source of strength and comfort.

Judy was 45 when her kidney cancer returned. In the course of chemotherapy, she attended a family picnic, where she laughed heartily when all of the men removed their baseball caps to show off their newly shaved heads, a sign, they said, of their solidarity with her, and their enduring love.

You will probably discover that many people will feel uncomfortable because of their own fears of dying and awkwardness around the subject of illness. They may distance themselves. If you can be open and share your feelings, including your frustrations and your fears, you may give them a way to deal with their own apprehension. Be prepared, though; some people may never want to deal with your illness and your only options will be to adapt or to let them go. Over time, you will know those with whom you can be most comfortable, and you can focus your energy on sustaining those relationships for as long as possible.

If conflict has strained an important relationship, it is worth the effort to try to mend the differences. If you feel inept at attempting this on your own, or your illness has depleted necessary physical and mental resources, seek the help of a counselor, chaplain, or other professional.

Professional mediators, who are trained to facilitate discussions and help resolve conflict, can be helpful; so too can anyone with interpersonal and communication skills. Working toward mending rifts among family or friends can be an important gift to yourself and those you love, but recognize as well that some relationships are beyond repair.

Norma was able to benefit from just such an intervention. She had long thought her children were indifferent to her and became resentful of their behavior. A social worker from the hospice gathered the family members together. During that time, they realized that most of what divided them was not so terribly important and often was based on misunderstandings. This left the family much closer and more supportive than they ever could have been if things were never said and feelings were never expressed. Although your life is ending, those left behind will have memories that can often be freed of bitterness.

Adapted from The Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness, by Joanne Lynn and Joan Harrold, copyright by Joanne Lynn, used by permission of Oxford University Press.