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7 Keys to Coping With a Loved One’s Serious Illness

An interview with a psychologist whose wife has cancer and had a stroke.

Courtesy, Michael Edelstein
Source: Courtesy, Michael Edelstein

Michael Edelstein is a psychotherapist and my friend. I have been amazed at how well he’s coping with his wife having serious cancer and cardiovascular disease. In hopes there might be lessons for us all, I asked him how he does it. He described seven keys:

1. Loving her. I’m lucky I married someone I came to deeply love. There are so many things about her I find lovable: We have a perspective on life that is different from most people’s: We’re so in sync about politics, the generations’ culture, music, literature, and movies.

2. Acceptance of the situation. As the Stoics urge, I accept rather than rebel against reality. That helps me deal with it rather than give myself a hard time. Of course, I don’t like that Janice has lymphoma and is living with the aftermath of a stroke but I think of them not as problems but challenges: What can I do to help her cope and even improve? When I help, I feel good and that adds to my resilience.

3. Looking forward. I don’t allow myself to dwell on the past, like “This is what Janice used to be able to do and now can’t." Rather, I think of each day as a baseline and about how we can move forward from here.

4. Daily writing: 3-minute exercises. Per Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, you identify the thinking that’s dragging you down: “I must solve this. It’s going to be a catastrophe. My whole life is a mess.” Then I write why such demands, such awfulizing, and too-global evaluations are wrong. I don’t feel better as I’m writing those three-minute exercises but over time, the positive ideas become more top-of-mind.

5. Scheduling my time with Janice. Each morning, I tell Janice, “I can give you two or three hours today but I also need hours to do my work." That starts a conversation. As a result, I get a sense of what Janice expects of me that day. If, instead of that, I just play it by ear, I end up spending all my time with Janice and don’t get my own stuff done.

6. Home care. I hire people who specialize in home care of people with limitations. I find them using NextDoor. I just put up a little blurb like, “I’m seeking someone to help my wife with household chores, cooking, and shopping.” I don’t find working with agencies at all useful.

7. Support from friends and relatives. I find it very helpful and supportive to have friends who are interested and with whom I can talk about the situation. It helps to feel I’m not in this alone.

8. (Bonus) Keeping myself healthy. If I had significant physical or mental problems, I couldn’t be there for Janice. So I get enough sleep, exercise, and eat a plant-based diet. I regularly step out of my situation with Janice so I’m not constantly immersed in it. I speak with and get together with friends. As a couple, we get together with other couples. I go for a run daily, listen to lectures live or on YouTube, and engage in my passions: political economy, nutrition, and music, mainly classical.

The takeaway

None of this is magical or even surprising but sometimes being reminded of common-sense tactics can be more effective than esoteric models.

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