Helping Your Loved One to Heal Emotionally

Caregivers often ask me how to get started helping their newly diagnosed loved one to cope with their diagnosis. Here are some ideas:

1. Ask about emotions.

Newly diagnosed patients are facing a wide range of emotions. Many of these feelings are uncomfortable — a feeling, like fear or anger, may be so uncomfortable that they may not be able to even acknowledge feeling this way, let alone begin to express these feelings to someone else. Gently ask your loved one how he or she is feeling, not only physically but emotionally, to express their emotions with you or to someone else of their choice. Keep in mind that, at least initially, some newly diagnosed patients are more comfortable opening up to people who are not their caregivers, and with whom they are less involved on a daily basis. Don’t take this personally. Your loved one may feel the need to protect you from his or her feelings, at least while adjusting to the diagnosis.

2. Express your own emotions.

Caregivers are not always comfortable admitting to emotions like fear, out of concern that they may come across as having a negative or pessimistic attitude. While it is realistic not to sound alarms with a newly diagnosed patient, expressing your own concerns can help to create an atmosphere of honesty. If fear, for example, has become the “elephant in the room,” getting it out in the open can relieve the tension that results from talking around the emotions that are most likely on everybody’s mind. While you want to encourage and support your loved one, he or she most likely wants to do the same thing for you. Open the door for both of you.

3. Remember that emotions are sensations and not reality.

The emotions that arise after being presented with a medical diagnosis are not necessarily based on reality. Instead, emotions are based on factors like past experiences, our own needs, what we suspect others are feeling, and plain old lack of information. Expressing a feeling doesn’t make it real — and it doesn’t mean we are making something bad happen. Emotion is like energy, and when we express a feeling, it loses the ability to control us. Don’t get caught up in superstitious thinking that causes you to hold in your feelings for fear that what you say will come true.

4. Respect the healing power of time.

You’ve heard the expression that “time heals all wounds.” A medical diagnosis can be experienced as a wound to the emotions — as well to one’s self-image. Each individual copes according to their own timetable, and this affects how they cope with their emotions and, consequently, their readiness to gather information and make treatment and lifestyle decisions. It can be frustrating if your timetable feels a lot more accelerated than that of your loved one. Try to be patient. Encourage them to talk about their feelings. Offer your assistance. But give them space to begin their own emotional healing.

5. Introduce spirit into the equation.

Whether a medical condition can be accommodated through lifestyle modifications or requires extensive treatment, the diagnosis can result in what is essentially a spiritual crisis, causing newly diagnosed patients to question everything they have ever believed about what they could contribute to the Universe and, in turn, expect to get back. Newly diagnosed patients often question their connection to a Higher Power — or their belief in God — but they may also be seeking a stronger spiritual connection to help them to cope during this time. Encourage your love one to talk about his or her spirituality. Offer to help your loved one to find appropriate spiritual advisers and to accompany them to services or meetings. And don’t neglect your own spirit during this time.