When a loved one is ill – it can feel like you are poised to jump off a cliff.
A few months ago we got the bad news: my husband Rick, father/step father of our 6 kids, work partner, co-developer of Time Perspective Therapy, and the man I have built my life around, was diagnosed with Stage IIIb gastric cancer which had worked its evil way into his esophagus and several lymph nodes. After meeting with specialists and conducting our own research (we face what appear to be horrendous odds) I wondered how we would make it through the coming months – and hopefully years. Being in limbo for extended periods of time is a recipe for anxiety and depression. So how would the folks who wrote the book (The Time Cure – see info at the end of this column) about dealing with trauma and stress handle this traumatic situation in our home and personal relationship?
Stages of Grief
Those diagnosed as well as their loved ones handle the news of a serious, life-threatening and life-changing illness in different ways. Personally, both Rick and I have experienced most of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When you think about it, we grieve for a variety of reasons – but no matter what we are grieving about, it’s always a loss of some sort. Serious illness brings with it the possibility of a myriad of losses – forced early retirement, financial instability, lessened self-esteem, curtailed pro-social activities with family and friends, and reduced time and focus on sexual intimacy, not to mention loss of free time. I’d like to share with you how Rick and I are working through these stages of grief – and how TPT is helping us during this new chapter in our lives.
For Rick, denial lasted a couple of months; for me, about two hours. It helps to understand that as a couple, Rick is the dreamer and I am the doer. Plus, maybe if I were the one diagnosed, our reactions would have been the opposite. But after the initial shock, I got online as soon as possible and read everything I could about Rick’s condition, available treatments and statistics regarding his chances of survival. I spiraled into solitary depression (see Depression, below) but held it together as best I could around Rick and family members. With the help of a physician friend, necessary arrangements were made for us at an out-of-state cancer treatment facility.
Rick didn’t want to see the medical stats for his cancer for the first two and a half months, which was a good thing. He stayed positive and hopeful and focused on making it through chemo and radiation therapies to see if he is a candidate (nice way to put it!) for radical surgery.
Lesson learned: Denial can be a helpful coping mechanism. However, it’s important someone closely involved is aware of the realities of the situation- and equipped to make logical, action-based decisions.
During chemo and radiation therapy, Rick became angry – at himself. His body rejected the first type of chemo he received and he wound up in the hospital for a week. Although he never questioned why he developed cancer (only one person in his family - a first cousin – has been diagnosed with cancer and ironically it was the same type of cancer) he was irritated that he couldn’t participate in any of the activities he used to; and that his body wasn’t handling treatment as well as we had hoped. As for me – my anger was directed at the insurance companies who made us jump through one hoop after another in order to collect on the policies we had contributed to for decades. But as situations resolved (Rick’s body better accepted a different type of chemo, and I successfully completed the insurance companies’ hoop jumping course) our anger dissolved.
Lesson learned: Anger can fuel you to accomplish tasks, but if not kept in check, can consume you in counter-productive ways.
Most of us have watched movies in which a character strikes a deal with God (or the Devil) in order to get something they want. This didn’t happen with Rick and me. We both accepted his diagnosis with a “Why not us?” attitude. So we skipped this step. Sure, we discussed how things would or could have been different but we were realistic and knew we could not change the past – or the facts. We could, however, reframe any negativity around the subject and look at it as a life lesson. The truly important things in life – love and relationships – came to the forefront of our consciousness. We wanted to move forward into a brighter future with our children, family and friends.
Lesson learned: Bargaining is a waste of time – and DON’T bargain with the Devil.
If you’ve ever been deeply depressed, you know that it can feel like you are in fog of sadness and loss so dense you can’t see past your outstretched hand. Rick has been in this fog since we found out he is a candidate for radical surgery. By nature, Rick and I are optimistic people and were hoping that he would be in the percentage of folks who don’t require surgery after radiation and chemo. But having read up on his cancer the day he was diagnosed, I was prepared for the likelihood of surgery and tried to prepare him as well. I didn’t do a good job because when we found out Rick is indeed a candidate for surgery he went into shock, which lasted a couple of days. When the shock wore off, he found himself embedded in a fog of depression. For Rick, some days are better than others. It helps when family and friends pay him visits or call him, at those times he reaches forward through the fog to grasp their hands and they gently pull him into the light. His physicians offered him anti-depressants, but so far, he has chosen to wait for the fog to lift naturally. Lately, Rick has been reviewing the many past positive times in his life and the future positives that he wants to experience.
I experienced depression for the first month with the peak being the fourth week after discovery. Within a week of finding out about the cancer, Rick and I traveled to a cancer treatment facility 4,500 miles away from our home. After two weeks I had to leave him in the care of other family members in order to return home and assume the responsibilities of our private practice and personal life. Although I knew he was in good hands, being away from him for two months was heart wrenching. The first week home I was in no shape to work with clients. I didn’t want to see friends or family, much less return phone calls, emails or text messages. The only folks I wanted to be around were our children. I was overwhelmed with all of the “what ifs”, the biggest being, what if he doesn’t make it through chemo and radiation and I am not there? I woke up one morning toward the end of the fourth week and looked in the mirror, shocked to see how much I had aged. I felt that I had selfishly been spending precious time focusing on myself – my potential losses – and that I owed it to Rick and especially our youngest child, a 17- year old high school senior to tune up pronto. I switched focus from a fatalistic present time perspective to selected present hedonism by returning to work and spending quality time with that young daughter and others that I am close to.
Lessons learned: Pro-social activities, being around those you love, and carving out time to enjoy yourself are antidotes to situational depression.
Rick made it through chemo and radiation and two weeks ago, he successfully underwent surgery. He has a long road to recovery and fortunately, a large support group backing him up every step of the way. Although he continues to suffer from what I’ll call “depression-lite”, on balance, he has more good days than bad. We have both accepted he had cancer and that it has changed our lives in every way. We choose to look at these changes as positives. We have greater appreciation for each other, our families and friends, and every moment’s time we have together.
Lesson learned: Don’t wait – tell those you are close to that you love them, focus on the positive aspects of your life; be grateful for everything you have – rather than what you don’t have, or has changed from your normal old existence.
We do welcome blessings from friends and our Psychology Today readers! And we wish you all the best life has to offer!
Check out our other Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!
Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at www.thetimeparadox.com to discover your personal time perspective.
Visit our website, "http://www.timecure.com/" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com, to view a free 20 minute video - The River of Time; you’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.
See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychotherapy" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "http://www.timecure.com/" \o "www.timecure.com" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com and "http://www.lifehut.com/" \o "www.lifehut.com" \t "_blank" www.lifehut.com.
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