When someone receives a devastating diagnosis, the medical issue becomes the focus of attention for many people, including healthcare providers, family members and friends.
Whether you are the primary caregiver or you’re on the periphery, a loved one experiencing an illness or injury requires mental, physical and emotional resources, says UNC Health clinical social worker Rose Wilson, MSW.
“It’s like getting a full-time job that you did not apply for,” she says. “You probably didn’t get training for this job, and it probably started overnight.”
First, give yourself time for the diagnosis to sink in and to understand what the course of the disease could be, including disability and end of life. Then, recognize how the diagnosis will change your daily life, now and in the long term.
“Navigating a chronic health condition is a marathon—an ultramarathon—not a sprint,” Wilson says.
Here are ways to cope when someone you love faces a serious illness or injury.
1. Take care of yourself.
Start by making self-care a priority, Wilson says. Get enough sleep, eat healthy foods and get some exercise.
“When a loved one is going through an illness and there’s an increase in stress, then taking care of yourself is really hard to do,” she says. “Things like exercising, moving our bodies and doing something for the joy of it are the first things we drop. But ignoring your basic needs will have an impact on how you can give care, as well as have a negative impact on your own health.”
Self-care might take different forms in the wake of the diagnosis.
“You may not get to the gym five days a week or be available for an exercise class you love, but figure out something else,” Wilson says. “Go for a walk every morning or evening. Go to a different class that meets at a time when you can be available.”
You can model self-care for others, including your children, which may relieve your concerns about their health.
2. Get away for breaks.
Whether your loved one is in the hospital or receiving care at home, give yourself permission to take breaks.
“It’s not only OK, it’s healthy,” Wilson says. “It doesn’t mean you are being negligent if you’re not at your loved one’s bedside 24/7.”
If your loved one is hospitalized, plan time away. Sleep at home in your own bed at least one night a week. Find places where you can be away from a clinical or medical setting for a while—maybe just 30 minutes. It might be in a garden or chapel or coffee shop. Do something you enjoy—listen to music, read a book, call a friend, pray, meditate or spend time in nature.
Also, consider being with people who aren’t focused on what your loved one is going through. “It can be a time where the diagnosis isn’t the only thing you are thinking and talking about,” Wilson says.
3. Identify your support network.
You don’t have to do it all alone, Wilson says. Remember, you are going through your own shock and grief.
“Everybody deserves the opportunity not to be the strong one all the time,” she says. “Figure out who can comfort you, who you can be vulnerable with. Schedule time to be with them in person or on the phone.”
You will be better able to support others if you are supported yourself.
4. Ask for help.
At first, the diagnosis may be all you can focus on. But there are responsibilities that must be tended to—pets to care for, trash to roll to the curb, bills to pay, grass to cut and leaves to rake.
“It can be overwhelming, especially in the beginning of a situation, and cyclically throughout the illness,” Wilson says. “It’s hard to say, ‘I need help.’ Sometimes it takes more energy for you to say what you need than to do it yourself. But the weight doesn’t have to be on just one person.”
Some families make a list of all the tasks that need to be taken care of, she says. Some have weekly meetings to discuss who is handling what and whether something could be done differently or by someone else.
“They have nitty-gritty conversations about everything that needs to be done,” she says. “Then those details don’t leak into all their other conversations.”
5. Help others, help yourself.
A friend or family member can help a primary caregiver by maintaining a list of ways people can be supportive. When someone offers to help, that person can be referred to the list or to the list manager.
By having a specific task, the friend or family member can connect and engage with the person experiencing the illness or injury and those in the surrounding support network.
“It helps others who are hurting if there are ways that they can plug in and be useful,” Wilson says. “More often than not, when they’re given a clear way to help, they’re all about it. It feels good to show up in a concrete way.”
6. Designate a communicator.
Family members and other loved ones probably want to know about the diagnosis and how the person is faring with the illness or injury. Since not everyone can meet with the doctor, it falls to someone to provide updates. This is another useful role, and one that can be comforting.
“For some people, writing messages or chats and being the point of contact feels good,” Wilson says.
7. Talk about it.
When dealing with a loved one’s illness or injury, which could include prolonged recovery or end-of-life decisions, you might want a place to share your emotions and feelings. Facing an illness or anticipating a loss may also bring up old grief.
Talking to a professional can help you name your concerns and work through them.
“These are normal things to fear, to worry about,” Wilson says. “It might help to reach out to a counselor or therapist to process what’s coming up for you in this moment.”
[cta] If someone you love has experienced a devastating diagnosis or a serious injury, don’t neglect your own physical and emotional needs. To get help, start by talking to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.