When someone close to you is seriously ill, then it can feel like your own life is on hold. But some responsibilities and events do not stop. What to do, when fear, guilt, uncertainty and life collide?
1. What is right, appropriate and normal?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, many people around me started walking on eggshells. They did not know how much of their lives they should put on hold.
That was May. By December the chemotherapy had left me too ill to join my parents for Christmas, which was our tradition. I was too weak and frail to do very much at all. My parents were too old to visit me.
I did not mind. I was too unwell and tired to make a drama out of it.
For my parents the situation had turned into an issue of personal conflict, loyalty and social etiquette.
2. Needing permission
Initially, no one talked about it. Eventually, after some probing and encouragement, my parents and others opened up.
- Would I be ok?
- Was it ok to celebrate Christmas without me?
- Would it be ok to visit others?
- Can the old Christmas tree go in its usual place?
I was asked to give others permission to live the lives they have.
They were worried what it might be like for me, if they did. And would I think they did not care and that their lives had not been affected.
They were struggling with how to cope and live with the knowledge that their child might die before them. And that all their hopes and dreams about their life in old age had been shattered.
My parents needed my permission, blessing and support to hold on to some kind of structure, routine and normality. I knew that and my heart went out to them. Yes, life does go on.
3. Social Etiquette
And then there is the issue of social etiquette – conforming with social expectations. Depending on where you live this can be strongly felt, or not. And I think that also played a part in the uncertainty and needing my blessing … “Karin said it would be ok… life goes on …” I did not blame or feel offended. I understood.
I did not want Christmas to be another thing to be affected and destroyed by my change in fortune.
The continuation of a family tradition was strangely reassuring.
4. Life goes on. But what about my life?
Clearly, December, Christmas, New Year, life (theirs and mine) would never be the same again.
The diagnosis, illness and treatment had been like a massive earthquake, destroying everything.
How was I going to rebuild? Was there time to rebuild? My life has been shortened. While the diagnosis was not terminal, predictions vary. So much uncertainty.
5. The anger
With all that going on, and radiotherapy just starting, I felt overwhelmed by others’ struggle to do ‘the right thing’ by me, by themselves and by others. I understood it, but I was also saddened by it and angry.
Why don’t you get it? Life goes on. Why do you need me to tell you that?
I did not want to have to emotionally rescue others when I was struggling to rescue myself.
I was angry to be put into this situation, because it felt like others were weak, when I needed them to be strong and take charge. This might be unkind, but that is what I felt then.
So, I did give permission and honest encouragement to ‘celebrate’ as much or as little as they saw fit.
These were my circumstances. Yours will be different. But at the heart of it all is communication. Talking about difficulties and dilemmas is not easy. But not talking about it can make things whole lot worse.
2 years later my father died and we were facing the first Christmas without him. I made sure we talked about it in advance: what it would be like; what arrangements would feel appropriate; how could we include him, even though he had died … It did help with the grieving and opened up a whole new path of communication about the more difficult things in life.
7. Life does carry on
Now, 6 years later, and 5 months after a local recurrence of my original breast cancer, communication is a lot easier. Fewer eggshells to walk on. All the hard and painful efforts of facing up to the stark possibilities of cancer have paid of.
I don’t have to carry my mother and others as much as at the beginning. No permission has to be given. We have worked out together what the best way of doing Christmas is this year.
At least we are at peace with that.
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Need some advice? Submit your question to my #DearKarin advice column here. Karin Sieger BA (Hons), MA (PsychCouns), Reg. MBACP (Accred) is a therapist and writer. All rights reserved © Karin Sieger. Neither articles nor videos substitute medical advice or therapy.