A loved one receives a life altering diagnosis, what to do next

crisis illness Sep 28, 2021

Upheaval. We’ve all experienced it. Sometimes it comes at us from outside, completely and utterly beyond our control. Think about pandemics, tornadoes, or stock market crashes. Sometimes it hits very close to home, such as when someone you love receives a terrifying diagnosis, or when you experience a death in the family.


Picture for a moment what it would be like if someone close to you was diagnosed with an illness with no cure, during a pandemic. Just picture how you’d feel and how you’d want to respond. That was the situation for a new client of mine who I worked with a couple of months ago. His organisation contacted me and set up a initial phone call to help one of their senior leaders organise his thoughts, ask questions and plan the return of his wife from hospital. She had been there having tests for the best part of a week before a diagnosis was given. The organisation wanted to ensure he was supported at this critical time. His wife had just been diagnosed with an illness for which there is no cure. It was a shock and a worry. His immediate response was to take control and start making decisions for him and his family which is a natural stress response. His love for his family had him wanting to devise a plan of action and make his wife’s return from hospital as gentle as possible. 


His response to his new normal is not unusual. This was unfamiliar territory for him, and his instinctive response was to get into action to lessen his fears. His biggest concern was how he would communicate this situation to their young children who had no idea mum was sick. She was no longer able to do all of the things she had done with them prior to her diagnosis, as her condition had quickly deteriorated. 


We all experience life changing events and no matter what it is, it’s painful to know that you have lost something. In my client’s case, a healthy life partner and mother. To help you navigate a life changing situation, here are the first five things you can and should do after a loved one receives a life-altering diagnosis. 


The first 5 things to do after a loved one receives a life-altering diagnosis  


1. Let go of blame

Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes no one is to blame. And yet, it’s so easy for our minds to search for the answer to who is to blame. Too often we blame ourselves for not noticing more or not acting sooner. Or we tell ourselves if we were different somehow, we wouldn’t have to be dealing with this now. We have prolonged the ‘good time’. Blame and judgment serve no purpose. In fact, they hold us back from moving forward past the pain.


2. Be extra gentle with yourself and others

Once you let go of assigning blame, it’s easier to be especially kind to yourself. That means different things to different people. How can you manage how you feel about this? You might choose to take some leave and give yourself and others space to work out how to deal with the new situation.


As the healthy one, you may be tempted to create a plan and make all of the decisions going forward. Often this approach helps you to feel less helpless however it is important to make this a group plan with a series of group decisions. If not, you could run the risk of taking over and later feeling resentful that nobody is doing what you suggested. You also disempower the person with the diagnosis, who is the expert in their own life. Unless you get asked to take full control, assume joint decision-making.


Initially for my client, he needed to write down all of the concerns he had and identify what changes he thought needed to happen. I then encouraged him to talk to his wife about her thoughts and ideas so she could also contribute to the conversation. This also meant they could have a joint point of view when they spoke to their children about this new situation. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just need to be willing to express your concerns and collaborate on solutions. Nothing is set in stone; changes will inevitably need to be made as new routines are developed.  


3. Allow yourself and others to feel

The last thing we want is to feel the pain and sadness of the situation. But doing so is an important part of the healing process. Finding a safe place to do that, whether it’s at home alone, with a trusted friend or advisor or even during a workout. Pushing away those unwelcome feelings will only intensify how strong they are and how long they last. Irrespective of the change, you will go through a range of feelings as you process the change effects.


It’s tempting to want to focus on tasks at this time however you also need to acknowledge that your hopes and dreams for the life you had planned together have possibly changed. And acknowledging that is an important part of the healing process.


4. Ask for help

We often feel shame or embarrassment when we are struggling to accept the changes that have come into our lives. We often look around and see that everyone else’s life looks perfect, and we wonder why that isn’t us. The fact is, no one’s life is perfect... ever. We just put our best faces forwards. Even if you’re known to be an independent person, it’s okay to ask for help from friends and family who love and care about you.


I often recommend to clients in this situation to identify and enlist people into three roles who they can call on when they need them. These roles can stay in place for a short period of time or much longer depending on the situation. The first is a person who can help with getting things done. Whether that’s taking the children to school, helping with a gardening project or planning an event. Another is a friend or couple of friends to regularly check in and just listen when you need to talk. And a third is a friend or group of friends to make sure you continue to socialise and not withdraw from your broader circle of support. Of course, you always have the option of professional help to support you in dealing with your situation. If you decide to do that you should seek someone out whom you trust; that could be your EAP provider or someone who regularly works with the challenge you are facing.


Luckily for this client they had a lot of family and friends around who wanted to help although during a pandemic what they could do was limited to phone calls and contactless meal deliveries. So, I suggested putting together a meal roster that family and close friends could sign up to. It’s much easier to harness help than give feedback that a particular type of help is not needed, especially when emotions are high. Bearing in mind, the support that you need will change over time and will need to be adjusted as you progress through your healing and once the pandemic restrictions lessen.


There is no shame in asking for help during this challenging time. In fact, it could help you heal quicker.


5. Take stock and only do what’s necessary

Now is the time to temporarily let go of responsibilities that aren’t vital to you or others’ survival. Let someone else take over for a while. Often this is a time where you can jointly re-evaluate activities and responsibilities and perhaps make some more permanent changes. You may decide that you want to spend more time in the kitchen or decide online shopping for your family groceries is a better use of your time. You may forgo that weekly vacuum of the house, and only do it when it looks like it needs doing. Initially just focus on today and what needs to be done, and only that. As the reality of the situation reveals itself, you may want to regularly review the changes you’re making and decide what’s working and what’s not working. In time you may even allow yourself to imagine your new future together and start planning towards it. Writing down your thoughts and ideas as they occur is usually helpful for this.


Remember, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming” by Helen Keller.


No one wants to go through transitions, but we all will. Things must change because we are growing, evolving beings who are here now to learn what lessons we need to reach our full potential. So it may not be all fun and games, but if we wish, we can learn important lessons that will serve us well as we move through tough changes.


We certainly can’t predict how we would behave after a loved one receives a life-altering diagnosis however we can have confidence that we’re not alone in our experience and help is literally a phone call away.  

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