How to cope with a sick family member?
August 31, 2005 9:59 AM   Subscribe

A family member of mine may be seriously ill and I can't stop thinking about it. How do I deal with everyday life in the meantime?

I recently found out that a parent might be seriously ill. Although my relations with them haven't been the best in the past, the news that they might be facing a long-term illness has been crushing me. It's all I can think about at work and my productivity has been slipping (FYI: I work 50+ hour weeks in a creative field job). I keep on making excuses to co-workers and friends because I don't want the pity that comes with the territory. I spend as much time as I can with the parent, but still need to get my mind clear for work. Is there any way to do this?
posted by huskerdont to Health & Fitness (10 answers total)
I'm very sorry to hear about your parent. Would it be possible for you to spend a few minutes at the start of each workday identifying the one (or three, or five, etc) most important thing(s) you need to accomplish that day? Then, in your free time with your parent, identify the one (or three, or five, etc) most important thing(s) you can do that day to make him/her more comfortable or at ease? At the very least, it's a start, and a tiny bit of structure and sense of accomplishment may help you as you adjust and cope.

I also think you need to accept that you're not going to be 100% at work or in day-to-day life while you and your family member get through this illness. You need to excuse yourself for that and try to show yourself the same empathy you'd likely show a coworker or a friend. You may not be the "super employee" you were prior to this crushing event, but you can function, and considering how concerned you are about your productivity even in the midst of all of this, I'd be willing to bet your 50% is better than a lot of people's 100%. Best of luck to you.
posted by justonegirl at 10:09 AM on August 31, 2005

dont have an answer really. but may be over time your emotions and feelings will balance out. I think it is a very common and expected reaction. Eventually you will probably come to terms with the reality of it. Dont think it helps. But thats seem to have been my experience when various tragedies befell my various family members.
posted by flyby22 at 10:12 AM on August 31, 2005

Also, I am of the opinion that it is probably worthwhile to let your superiors know that you need to attend to a sick parent. I am not in the creative industry. I am in IT. Colleagues and bosses generally seem to understanding of such challenges and I have not seen the pity thing. Try not to assume that people will be immediatly showering pity on you. This is something almost everybody has to go through someday and most people know better than saying - "oh poor such and such" is sometimes how we project the challenges to not make it harder on yourself than it needs to be....these things happen and your colleagues should understand that.
posted by flyby22 at 10:31 AM on August 31, 2005

To some extent, the stress of hiding what's wrong may be adding another distraction. You may be putting so much energy into pretending that you're OK that it's keeping you from being as productive as you could be.

I had to deal with my mother's cancer diagnosis while I still worked in an office. I told my boss what was going on, and I think she told the other managers, but beyond that no one ever said anything about it to me. (For the most part, people get weirded out when dealing with illness and will probably avoid you anyway.) But it helped to know that my boss didn't think I was just slacking off, or hungover, or whatever other conclusion she might have drawn. Giving myself that bit of permission to back off actually calmed me down and let me focus more.
posted by occhiblu at 11:23 AM on August 31, 2005

Also, if you can tell your friends, being able to talk about the situation sometimes may help you to stop obsessing on it all the time. It can help to process what you're feeling with someone outside the situation, rather than just spinning your mental wheels as you worry about it 24 hours a day.
posted by occhiblu at 11:27 AM on August 31, 2005

My dad has been dead for 6 months now, and as I look back at it, those first few days when I knew he was going to die from cancer were the absolutely most soul-crushing for me.

I took 2 days off from work to deal with the news. I made plans to take care of both my folks every day after work, plus weekends. But my dad made it a point that I needed to take an evening "off" every now and then in order to stay sharp at work. (This was also my dad's way of saying that on some days, he needed alone-time.)

I work in a prominent position within a small company. I knew I couldn't deal with hiding or ignoring my dad's diagnosis. I absolutely told everyone what was going on. To be honest, I think being upfront helped my co-workers, too -- many of them were my dad's age and, confronted with their own mortality, wanted to talk about what was going on. I ended up helping some younger folks get their estates in order when they asked me questions about probate. Like occhiblu's example, many also were too-weirded out to say anything to me.

You see, I also work in creative. It was imperative my co-workers (and top clients) knew of the situation so we could plan out meetings, deadlines, etc. I had no qualms stating things like, "I don't think my dad will last into March -- better reschedule my meetings".

So, I tentatively laid out schedules, backup plans, and made arrangements to do some things at home during my 1 week bereavement leave. Once I felt comfortable every was going to be taken care of both at home and the office, I was able to really concentrate well.

Don't let the prospect of pity get to you. You'll have to face it sooner or later in your life, so might as well deal with it head-on so you can take care of your office, your family, and yourself (er, maybe not in that order). I'll be the first to admit I got burnt out some days. But overall, I did a lot of good work during that time, met my deadlines, and was able to be there when my family needed me the most. And when dad did ultimately die, there were a lot of donations in his name from my office and my clients.

Best of luck to you and my condolences during this tough time, though I suspect your outcome is still very uncertain. All I can ultimately say is that it does get better. Talk helps.
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:11 PM on August 31, 2005

Note: Since my office is small and I'm a high-up as it is, I just emailed everyone and told the managers, my boss, and my team members face-to-face. But as corporate cultures vary, it'd no doubt be wisest to have a talk with your boss/manager, first.
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:21 PM on August 31, 2005

I know this sounds awful and irresponsible, but try being in denial.
My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in May, and she told me right before I was due to take 3 very important exams. And the only way I could get through them and pretend everything was okay was to act like there was nothing wrong with her. If she talked to me about her cancer or anything, I subtly changed the subject. I didn't ask questions or talk about it to anyone. I just pretended nothing was wrong and it was all make-believe.
This might not help you at all. I know it sounds like a terrible thing to do. But she didn't realise what I was doing, and I got through my exams fine. And then I got my act together and started supporting her, she being none the wiser that for nearly 2 months I practically ignored the fact that she had cancer.
It is a hard and horrible thing to live with when a family member is ill, especially now she has lost all her hair due to the awfulness that is chemotherapy. But keep them positive and you will feel good too.
I really hope everything works out okay for you and I apologise if this comment has annoyed you or anybody else. I just wanted to give some advice that somebody else might not think to say, but it honestly worked for me.
posted by angryjellybean at 12:28 PM on August 31, 2005

I would suggest finding someone to talk to, a good friend or another family member, preferably one who has had to deal with something similar or who at least just understands the medical world. You shouldn't have to bear the psychological burden by yourself. Someone with experience can hopefully help navigate you through the roller coaster emotions, excessive lab tests, and doctor-speak you may encounter. Studies have shown that the stress to families and caregivers can be as detrimental as the actual illness is to the patient. If you can communicate about your emotions to someone you trust, you will probably be able to focus better in the rest of your life, and fare better emotionally in the end.

Be aware that it's okay for you to be distracted. It's obvious that you care about your parent, and you care about your job, and you care about your sense of self in both those situations. It's the last one that's the hardest to maintain, so cut yourself some slack, and communicate with others so that they can get a better understanding of you and your desires.
posted by sarahnade at 3:44 PM on August 31, 2005

I've never gone through this, so I'm very unqualified to comment, but: it's partly an issue of focus. Changing the way you address your emotions so they butt in less is great, but simply improving your ability to focus could be a good idea. Meditation could help - here's one: for 15 or 20 minutes, focus on your breath. As thoughts come, acknowledge them and let them go. This relaxes you and helps remove all the clutter that was in your mind so you can start again. Do it, for example, in the morning and during your lunchbreak.

Also, and this is good advice in general: make sure you're sleeping well. I mean, really well - if your alarm clock wakes you up you're accruing a sleep debt, so go to bed earlier. Like most people you almost definitely already have a sleep debt, which affects clarity of thought and peformance a ton, so try even to get 20 minutes or so extra until you start waking up on your own, which could be a long time. (Contrary to popular belief, merely getting your 8 hours gains you nothing if you missed sleep a previous night, and that loss stays with you for months or longer until you sleep it off). Dreams are used to organize new information and the less REM sleep you get the more unprocessed junk (i.e.: stress) accrues and keeps you from thinking.

To state the really obvious, if you have specific questions you're mulling it's helpful to set some time aside to mull them to the point where they're either answered or need more information, where possible. (Though I assume the book itself is self-help crap, 43folders' overview of Getting Things Done summarizes this).

Also, this is just my thought, but don't lie to your coworkers. It confuses things to add another burden of deception. Let them decide whether to pity you, if they're wrong to it's their problem.

Good luck.
posted by abcde at 3:47 PM on August 31, 2005

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