All about my mother.
November 29, 2006 3:22 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to help cheer up my mum who's stuck in a funk?

My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer back in January and went through subsequent treatments of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. A month after everything was completed (and she celebrated her 50th birthday) we were told the cancer had spread not only to her left breast but to her bones. Needless to say, we were floored. She was admitted into hospital to do more tests and while there suffered a collapse which the doctors believe was a pulmonary embolism causing multiple organ failure. She was in ICU for a week in a semi-comatose state and life support, basically. It's been a month since these events, and while she's back at home and getting gradually strong enough to walk and so forth, she goes through periods of depression (understandably).

I tell you all this in an attempt to get you to understand what sort of mind-set she and the rest of the family is in. It would be an understatement to say that we have had a hellish month. She's been constantly told what a miracle it is that she's still alive while at the same time being told it's time to get her will sorted as there's no treatment that can be done to cure her only to make her "comfortable".

What can I do to bring some brightness in her life and cheer her up a little? Keep in mind, she can't move around much and she's extremely weak so any sort of energetic activities are out of the question. All her past interests, like playing cards and reading have faded away. She'd rather lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and I know that's not conducive to her getting physically and mentally better.

Any advice, suggestions or personal anecdotes on how to handle the situation would be greatly appreciated. Thank-you. :)

If you wish to e-mail me, my addy is in my profile.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total)
When my sister was going through chemo, what really helped her was books on tape. She couldn't keep her eyes open for videos, she couldn't hold up a book, but listening to stories kept her from boredom and horrible thoughts.
Also nice, some really nice lotion (so long as it's not scented like food). Splurge on this. Lavender is nice.
Get some covered 'sippy' style cups for her to drink from. It makes it easier to stop spills, and she won't have to smell any potentially nauseating smells.
Don't try to strongarm her onto the sunny side of the street. She'll go there when she's good and ready. In the meantime, just be there as much as you can. That's the best advice i can give. Be physically present.
Best wishes to you mom and family.
posted by Sara Anne at 3:34 PM on November 29, 2006

What about some nice music? Something with a beautiful narrative? That and extra affection are what I would turn to. I'm sorry I don't know more to say, but your thoughfulness touched me. My best to you!!!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:40 PM on November 29, 2006

One thing that seemed to mean a lot to my grandma after her stroke was when I would reminisce about things we'd done together when I was a child. She could just listen to me talk and participate as much as she was able. I made sure to tell her that I would share the memories with my children, and she seemed touched that I remembered so much and that she would live on when I shared those memories with future generations. I think people who are dying are concerned with what they have accomplished in their lives and if they have left a legacy, and it is a kindness to let them know that they will be remembered.
posted by gokart4xmas at 3:43 PM on November 29, 2006

Have you looked into hospice? They do amazing things coming to see her and do understand what is ahead for her. You will be pleased at the help they can give your mother. Good luck and God bless.
posted by JayRwv at 3:47 PM on November 29, 2006

My advice, for what it is worth, would be to stop trying to cheer her up. I know it is human to want to make things better, but when people have gone through a significant trauma they usually don't need cheering up.

Someone trying to cheer them up, in fact, can feel like abandonment - your mother almost died and may be dying now. She's had everything taken from her, her identity has been turned upside down and she's gone on (and is on) a journey those around her will never fully understand. Given those circumstances I think it makes sense she's not interested in her old activities. People trying to cheer you up can make you feel incredibly lonely and like you're doing something wrong. I know this from experience.

Having worked with many people who have suffered significant trauma I can tell you that the biggest gifts you can give are 1) to be willing to sit with her pain and 2) to not assume you know what's best for her. Sometimes people need to be sad - they need to go through it in order to get better (or in order to go with peace).

There are things you can do. You can educate yourself about what she might be experiencing by reading books by people who have had similar experiences. You can be physically present with her (as someone said) and let her know that if she wants or needs to talk about the hard stuff you are willing to listen.

Think in terms of bringing her comfort rather than cheering her up. Again, be willing to sit with the sadness without trying to make it go away. This is extremely difficult for most people, but it really is a gift to those who are suffering.

And no advice. Don't give her any advice. None. None. None. No advice. Did I say that clearly?

Only one suggestion you might make to her - if you think she is clinically depressed you might want to suggest she get evaluated for it.

Consider something like, "Mom, I know you've been through a horrible trauma and. I want you to know that I'm here. It's hard for me that you're feeling bad, but I also understand. Would it be helpful if I....." Make specific, concrete suggestions of things you could do (bring her a favorite food, watch a movie with her, check in at a certain time each day). Ask her if there's anything she's worried about that you might be able to help with. Make eye contact with her. Tell her there's no time table for what she's going through and there's no wrong way to do it.

Remember this is traumatizing for you too. Get support if you can. You're on a journey as well. Dive down below the surface and let her know she is not alone.
posted by orsonet at 4:35 PM on November 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Right after I finished posting what I said above, I saw this quote and well, I just don't know what to say.

"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares." - Henri Nouwen
posted by orsonet at 4:42 PM on November 29, 2006 [6 favorites]

When my grandfather had cancer & was in hospice, they had volunteers who would bring their pets to visit. Some people find that holding a purring cat or watching a puppy play is healing. Other volunteers came & gave foot massages, which I heard were much appreciated. Best wishes to you.
posted by belladonna at 4:45 PM on November 29, 2006

A call every day is recommended if you cannot be with her daily. Mom passed from pancreatic cancer and my dad had colon cancer a few years later, which he reovered from. I didn't ask the blatantly obvious 'how are you' but asked about the details of treatment and just listened. I think it's what they needed.
Bring your mom her favorite things to eat, or things that make her more at ease. Anything that reflects your life with her is also good. Photos, videos, with a positive emphasis on survival. If your mom definitely isn't going to make it, I suggest you make peace now. Depends on the honesty of the MD.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:52 PM on November 29, 2006

Having just recently been through a similar experience with my father, I can't begin to tell you how much I feel for you and your family.

I very much agree with orsonet's advice about not trying to cheer her up. It is terribly hard, as a child, to see one's parent so ill and depressed, but she needs your support more than ever now. Your mom is grieving, for her body which is failing her, for her inability to live life as she is use to, and for the many things she is likely to miss because of this terrible disease. Many people will try to cheer her up, but what she really needs is someone who is willing to acknowledge both her disease and feelings. Let you mom be honest with you about how she feels and what she is going through.

Get hospice in as soon as possible. They can make your mom comfortable in ways you probably wouldn't think of, and can give you and your family members much needed breaks from your new caregiving role. Further, they will teach you how to be the best caregivers you can be. Caring for my father during his illness was truly the most important thing I have done in my life. I was amazed at what I was able to do and how much it helped my father to have me around.

In addition to helping your mom, make sure you take good care of yourself. Go out to dinner often, surround yourself with friends who will listen during the times you are overrun with emotion and allow yourself time to get away.
posted by a22lamia at 5:55 PM on November 29, 2006

Yes, I got to watch my mom have cancer, too. I'm sorry.

How about travel? To see relatives, or just places she has always wanted to see? I know, I sound like an insensitive jerk for even suggesting it, it's just that -- travel was the way my mom chose to spend her waiting-to-die time. She took it very easy, of course, and was more about trams and boats and trains than walking tours. She would still get tired, and avail herself of a wheelchair sometimes, and the hotel had to have a jacuzzi for the evenings.

As she said, "I'm going to be hurting wherever I am -- I might as well see something neat as lie in bed." I think, too, she wanted her grandkids to have happy memories of exploring these places with her. If there are kids in your family, pitching it this way might help her come out of herself.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:14 PM on November 29, 2006

Hi liquorice - in light of the new information here are a few things that helped me through.

My father didn't like to talk about how he was feeling so I frequented forums for his type of cancer. It helped me to understand what he may be thinking and feeling when he didn't want to share that information himself with me.

My father was also against palliative care until his last week. I'm not sure what it ment to him but he refused pretty much until he was too weak to refuse any more. What you are providing your mom is palliative care, hospice would mean that you would get some breaks I am sure you need. I would still contact your local hospice on your own. They may be able to direct you to diffent types of support for yourself.

And once again, take time for yourself. It is okay to go out for a while.

In addition to losing my father this year, I also lost my mom when I was a bit younger than you are now - feel free to email me for whatever reasion.
posted by a22lamia at 7:49 PM on November 29, 2006

I'm sorry for your mom's experience.

My thesis adviser went through leukemia, and she loved the chemo cap I gave her for Christmas that year. It was not itchy, as many fabrics were irritating her skin, and kept her warm on those cold days.

She demurely kept the "fuck cancer" motto on the inside of the cap, but it seemed to inspire her to know it was there.
posted by answergrape at 6:44 AM on November 30, 2006

Liquorice, I'm terribly sorry to hear about your situation. I haven't experienced this myself, but a couple of things occurred to me. First, it's so admirable that you want to make things better for your mom. Make sure that you take some time for yourself, too--even if it's just an hour a week for coffee with a friend.

Second, a couple of ideas. Can your mother tolerate non-family company? Do you have any friends that she's known for a while? Even if your mother doesn't have the energy to socialize, maybe you could invite a friend over for a (quiet) chat, in which your mother could be a observer or a participant, if she wants. My thought here is that perhaps some youthful energy would be beneficial to her (as long as you're sure it won't bring her focus back to her own mortality). In this way, she could be included in your life, too--as your mother, undoubtedly this is important to her.

Sars at Tomato Nation (yes, I link to her a lot) covered a similar situation recently; here's the original email, and here's the response from the readers.

I wish you and your family all the best.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:27 AM on November 30, 2006

I like gocart4xmas's idea about memories. Could you start looking at family photographs whilst sitting in the same room as her, asking her who people are and when events happened, maybe arranging them in an album and labelling them? Asking her about family history? Such a terrible time for you - I hope you can find time to take care of yourself too, talk to friends and do fun things sometimes. Apart from anything else, it will give her something else to think about if you come in full of stories about what you've been doing, and she'll be happy for you.
posted by paduasoy at 12:50 PM on November 30, 2006

would smoking some marijuana help her? i suggest it because i know it's used medicinally in some countries, and when a friend's mother was very rundown and depressed with fibromyalgia, a little toke helped her feel less pain, anxiety, and boosted her appetite. i think the rebelliousness of the act lifted her spirits too. maybe this could help you two (or any other likeminded adults in the family) to bond.

a quick googlesearch reveals the national cancer institute's factsheet about marijuana as a treatment:

this must be tough for you. good luck.
posted by twistofrhyme at 2:41 PM on November 30, 2006

Check out the book, The Five Love Languages, and discover the type of language that she deeply and truly hears as a loving gesture, and do that in various and sundry ways. The book should help with pretty much every other relationship as well =D
posted by vanoakenfold at 11:26 PM on November 30, 2006

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