Cancer doesn’t only affect the individual, but is a family experience that affects every individual in a unique way (check out our recorded conversation about cancer being a family experience). Vulnerable and difficult conversations and situations can arise when cancer becomes a part of life.
We’re here to cover a few tips we’ve gathered from psychologist Dag Härdfeldt, and our community who have experienced cancer themselves, on how to face these conversations and other aspects of family life, in order to ease the pressure when dealing with cancer as a family.
What we’ll cover in this blog
How to co-parent and talk with your child about cancer
It’s proven that taking care of children when a parent is going through cancer, especially during treatment, significantly increases the parent’s feeling of inefficacy and concern about their impact on their children. This shows just how important it is to find ways to alleviate your distress and improve the mental health of everyone affected by cancer.
Working together as a team is more effective in building a positive and safe space for your kids. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when co-parenting and going through cancer.
Adapt your language and coping strategy to individual needs
As mentioned earlier, cancer is a family experience that affects everyone differently, including children. Each individual faces their own challenges and has their own coping mechanisms and needs.
Approach your kids in the way that suits them best and feels most natural in the family dynamic. Talk with your kids together or separately. In your home or in a neutral space outside. A co-parents, discuss how you’d like to approach your child with each other before doing so. This will make you more aligned and help you communicate in an informed and sensitive way.
Visibility into the needs of everyone affected is critical because it will make both sides feel heard and less lonely. Tune into your kids – how are they reacting? What is it that makes them feel comfortable? Less anxious? Closer to you? Try and recreate these kinds of environments as much as possible.
By answering questions they have honestly and being open to the way they feel, your child becomes more equipped to work through complex emotions.
Remember, kids are individuals, just like adults. Try to find coping mechanisms that speak to them personally and help them feel in control. You may find that your child may want to help out, or maybe they prefer to express themselves creatively. Some may want to get closer to you physically, others may back away. This, of course, varies significantly depending on their age and your personal relationship with them. It’s important to encourage them to cope in ways that are constructive in the long-term and aren’t adapted to your own self-interest.
Be present and natural
A child needs their parents to be present, whether or not cancer’s part of the equation. Of course, if you’re going through cancer, it may feel like your needs take precedence, temporarily or for a long period of time.
In order to better manage the potential guilt that comes with that, and help your child continue to feel valued or seen, make an effort to be as present as possible with them. If you’re going through cancer and don’t have the energy, ask your partner to help you, your friend, or your child’s friend or parents.
Remember to keep having normal interactions with them. Dance in the kitchen if that’s what you’re used to, or listen to music at dinner. It can be as simple as waving them goodbye in the morning if that’s something you’ve always done. Try to keep a level of normality when everything else feels out of their control.
Odds are, if you are truly present with them, however tired you are, bonding with them will give you energy and umph to carry on.
What to do if they’re shutting you out?
Your kid may feel the need to distance themselves emotionally (and partner too, while we’re at it). The most effective way to do this is to stop speaking, shutting you out. It’s very common because it’s very effective.
Oftentimes, we think emotional avoidance is bad, but it doesn’t have to be. Depending on how you’re wired, you may need time in order to figure out how you’re feeling. Problems ensue if we let it go on for too long. This is because it has the rabbit hole effect: the deeper you go into it, the more difficult it becomes to get out of it because the brain goes “I have a lot of untouched feelings there and I don’t have the energy to go into them right now.”
If you feel your child is cutting you off, try and break emotional avoidance through small steps. For example, explain to them that you feel the distance: “Hey, I feel there’s a wall between us right now. I don’t know how to fix it and we don’t have to start right away, but I just want to say that I feel it and I wish for it to go away.”
This can be enough for them to dare to break out of their shell. Help them feel safe and in control by taking small steps back towards each other.
Engage with others in your community and accept help from them
Others in your community may offer to help you – whether that’s bringing over a home-cooked meal or helping drop off your children at school. Accept the help in the capacity that feels right to you. If friends or relatives aren’t sure about how to help out in a way that actually helps, don’t be afraid to suggest something.
Make sure to speak to teachers, babysitters, or other people that are closely connected to your children, and keep them updated about your situation. This can help surround your kids with informed people they can turn to, even if it’s not you, in case they ask questions or want to talk to someone slightly removed from the situation.
Also, if you or someone in your family desire an external, neutral space in order to process situations and understand emotions and motives, seeking out a professional is a great place to do that.
How to cope with grieving parents
Use “I” Statements to get your point across
Here’s a practical communication tool to use if you’d like to adjust someone’s approach to your cancer: use “I” statements.
An “I” statement is, essentially, a rule of communication where you can only express yourself in statements of “I.” Such as, “I feel you’re not helping” instead of “you’re completely worthless.” Or, “I feel anger towards you,” rather than “you’re doing everything wrong.”
You get the point. But keep in mind, “I” statements are really easy to learn but super hard to master. The idea behind doing this is to only speak about things that you are certain are true and that you’re feeling, without putting the other person in a state of defense.
Now, if you’re being a smart-alec (or irritated) it may be tempting to dumbify “I” statements to their most basic level by saying something like “I feel you’re an idiot.” Pro tip: do not do this. It is to nobody’s advantage, not even your own, however tempting it may be in the moment.
Let’s say that your parents’ approach to grieving right now is hindering you in some way. Formulating your emotions about their approach using an “I” statement could be: “the way you are approaching me right now is making me irritated. I’m not sure why, but it’s not helping me.”
This is very different from saying something like “God, stop it you guys. You’re so annoying.” Right? This kind of expression puts the focus and blame on the other person, who in turn start thinking, “Am I annoying? Do they think I’m a bad person?”
On the other hand, if you tell it like an “I” statement that can’t be disputed (“I feel like this”), then you force their focus on trying to better understand you, rather than feeling hurt and defensive.
You’re the expert on your diagnosis
As a child, it’s very common to think of our parents as unflawed. Often, a parents’ example and presence is what kids assume to be “right” and “normal,” and parents are people who don’t need anything and are built to support our every need. Yet, the older we get and the more difficult the circumstances we find ourselves in, this facade of our early childhood slowly fades and we discover that our parents are humans themselves – with needs, emotions, and imperfections, just like us.
This is why it becomes uncomfortable when we start seeing our parents (if you’ve grown up associating them with strength and resilience) mourn, break down, or feel overwhelmed by cancer, or anything else for that matter. This is a clear way in which a cancer diagnosis affects the roles we all play within a family.
Now, you’re the expert on your diagnosis. If you find it helpful to journal about emotions or share experiences with others who can relate, let them know that it’s a coping mechanism that works and encourage them to do the same. If they’re doting and that’s not what you currently need in order to best cope with cancer, let them know that using “I” statements. If you can’t deal with their emotions, kindly ask them to share with another family member or friend, to lift the burden off you and still give them a space to process. It’s your turn to guide them in knowing what’s best for you and them during cancer – they’ll be grateful for it.
Just like in any relationship, try to build understanding and open communication between you and your parents through constructive communication. Oftentimes, your parents will sense if you’re not giving them the full truth, and this causes tension. It may be hard for them to take the truth, but it will relieve tension and help you face cancer together.
How to prepare loved ones for a poor prognosis
Remember your poor prognosis is news for you, too
Getting a poor diagnosis can affect your mental health in ways you aren’t prepared for. Maybe you’re numb, maybe you breakdown, maybe it hits immediately or after a few weeks.
Before sharing your prognosis with loved ones, remember that it’s okay to keep it to yourself if that’s how you prefer to process it. Only once you’ve been able to digest the news can you better open yourself up and take on the reactions of others. Dealing with your own emotions and others at the same time can be overwhelming and negatively impact your wellbeing.
So, share it immediately if you feel that works best for you, but know that you are entitled to all the time in the world to process your prognosis before letting others know.
Don’t feel bad for the effect of the prognosis on their life
Oftentimes, when we share news or are the cause of someone else’s pain, we feel bad. That’s normal. Thankfully, we don’t inherently want to make others feel bad. However, our imperfect nature and broken world means pain is inevitable and so is bad news.
This is not your fault. Cancer is not your fault. And, your loved ones’ grief is not your fault. Losing you to cancer, whether for a little while during treatment, or forever, leaves a hole you cannot fill, no matter how hard you try. It’s because you’ve shone so brightly in their lives. That, of all things, is nothing to apologize for.
Instead of focusing on the pain of an unfair world, focus on the love that you share. Remind them of the beauty of having something to grieve. Of the impact you’ve had on each other, and of the hope that a poor prognosis does not mean the end, simply a rockier road ahead. Ask them to walk alongside you during this experience.
Leave space for a response and talk/listen it through with them
Some people going through cancer may feel like it’s unfair that their loved ones grieve when they’re the ones who get to keep on living normally, or live at all. Yup, that’s fair.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that cancer, and even more so a poor cancer progognis, is a so-called “family experience.” This means that it seldom affects just an individual, but a system of individuals. It strikes the individual who gets cancer in a certain way and it strikes the loved one to that individual in a different way. Because of this, it can change the family dynamic and the roles that everybody plays and are used to in their families.
Keep in mind that though you are the one to have received a poor prognosis, it also affects your loved ones, albeit in a different way. There’s no use comparing the severity of its effect, but learning to accept and support each individual’s unique experience as a result of cancer.
Once you’ve had the chance to process the news of a poor prognosis, try to be there for your loved ones and keep an open door to conversation for them to express their emotinons. It’ll keep your bond stronger and closer, and leave less space for misunderstandings.
After all, it turns out, the effect of a poor diagnosis or losing a loved one affects the mental health of loved ones, yet is often neglected by healthcare professionals.
Studies have shown that about 20% to 25% of family members reported feeling unprepared for the death of their loved one and its aftermath. It’s also been reported that bereaved family members who felt unprepared for the death of their loved one suffered from worsened mental health.
Keep your relationship like it’s always been
A poor prognosis is clearly hard to take. But, it’s important to remember that though your life may look differently with cancer, it doesn’t have to change all together. Life is a string of many moments together, often embellished by laughter, tears, silliness, overcoming, support, and encouragement.
Don’t let the dark cloud of your prognosis infiltrate every aspect of your relationship with your loved ones, and let them know that you don’t want it to be that way. Tell them you want to be able to hang out as you used to do without every single conversation coming back to cancer. This may be something they need to work on in the beginning, but remind them that it’s not worth talking about constantly (nothing is). Lightening the load through humor also goes a long way.
In the end, families will inevitably be affected by cancer. Walk together, with open hearts and the desire to understand each other. Also, make sure to learn about how others handle family life with cancer by downloading the War On Cancer App and connecting with others who are going through something similar.