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How to Help Your Partner Cope With Your Cancer Diagnosis

how to help your partner cope with terminal illness diagnosis

How do you help your partner cope with your illness? (image by sleepyjeannie via flickr)

Sometimes being diagnosed with a disease like cancer is more bearable than learning about your partner’s diagnosis of a terminal illness. Watching someone you love become sicker and sicker – knowing that death is coming – is one of the worst things to bear.

Here’s what J says:

“Hi Laurie, I met the nicest woman a few years ago….she moved in to take care of me as I have a terminal illness. A lot of the time when we disagree, she’ll just scream at me and I feel like whatever I have to say is invalidated. She says I don’t help out enough with day to day things. I have offered several times to help but she knocks me back, so I don’t keep asking. We fight over what I consider to be trivial issues.

All I wanted to do was die with some dignity and spend whatever time I have left doing fun things with the woman I love. I don’t know how long I have left to live with the illness, but it wears me out physically and I find myself not coping because I’m so stressed out. It also feels that I am in a situation where I am the one who has to do all the work on the relationship and change the person I am so that she is pleased with me. I end up spending a lot of time in bed as I stay awake at night worrying about how I am going to fail her the next day. I try to rekindle the romance that we used to have together. I’ve offered to take her and the children on a family holiday, even a cruise to a tropical island like Hawaii or Fiji. It seriously breaks my heart to know this may never come to pass, it was one of my dreams for us to do this together before I didn’t have the physical strength any longer. She still won’t come with me though.” – from my article about relationship repair.

The tips I have for J may help other people in his situation.

How to Help a Loved One Cope With Your Terminal Illness

Dear J,

It sounds like you have alot on your plate! I’m so sorry to hear about your terminal illness. When I was 29, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that I thought would end my life. I made peace with my death, but I know my loved ones had a hard time with the idea that I may soon be gone.

Maybe you and your partner need to separate your love from your day-to-day life. Maybe she can’t be the person to take care of you with regard to your illness. Maybe the strain on your relationship is coming from the stress and anxiety she feels about your illness and possible death. It’s very possible that she’s scared about losing you, and isn’t coping well with the thought of your death.

You seem very accepting about your terminal illness and the end of your life. You clearly see how you want to spend your remaining days. I wonder if maybe she’s taking it much harder than you are? She may be mourning your life and struggling with the day-to-day routine, knowing that you’ll be gone soon.

I don’t know what’s going on with your partner, but it’s possible that she can’t do fun things with you and take care of you at this point in your life. Maybe she feels guilty and ashamed of herself, and she’s taking it out on you. Maybe the idea of a beautiful vacation is too painful for her, or too physically or emotionally demanding.

Have you and she talked about what’s going on, underneath the arguments about seemingly trivial things? You mentioned that she said she needs help with the day-to-day things…do you think that’s the issue, or is something deeper is going on?

The answer is there; you may need to dig a little to find it. It may be uncomfortable, but worth it in the long run.

A few ideas for helping a loved one cope with your illness:

  • Accept that even though you may be at peace with your diagnosis and future, she may not be. She may be mourning her loss, and unable to untangle her grief from her love for you.
  • Talk about death. If she’s reluctant, send her Are You Scared to Die? 5 Reasons to Accept Your Death. Talk about your and her feelings about your death and her future.
  • Discuss how your illness and future are affecting her and your relationship. Be as open and honest as you can, and encourage her to do the same.
  • Go to a session or two of couples counseling, with a therapist experienced in chronic disease and death. Some hospitals offer this for free.
  • Encourage her to look into grief support groups, or groups for caregivers. The more support she has, the better she’ll be able to handle her emotions.
  • Think about making changes in your lives that will help both of you cope with the rest of your life. If your partner can’t cope with caring for you at home in the final stages of your illness, release her from that obligation.
  • Read How to Help a Grieving Friend for more ideas.

I hope this helps, and will keep you and your partner in my prayers.

Reader, what do you think – how do you help a loved one cope with a diagnosis of cancer or other terminal illness?

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