coping as best one can, with having a parent who is sick
How can a child or adolescent best cope with such a majorly challenging life experience?
Speaking from personal experience, having to watch one of your parents suffer from a sickness or go through a physical illness is one of the most difficult experiences one can endure. I have had to go through this particular experience twice: once with my father who suffered a terrible back problem (slipped disk) and recently with my mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I think one of the major feelings someone experiences during times like these, is that of helplessness. You begin to think, “How am I supposed to take care of my parent, if their role is to take care of me? “How can I support them when I’m still so young and dependent on them?”. All these questions are valid, normal, and take up most of our thoughts, together with the worry and fear of losing them.
Having a parent who is seriously ill takes a major emotional toll on the child, regardless of their age. In order to support, care, and help the parent, together with dealing with their own emotions towards the situation, can be overwhelming and delicate. Furthermore, the family dynamic can have a huge impact on the experience, as the type of family relations and environment, will have an enormous impact on how the child/adolescent copes, shoulders and deals with the situation. In my case, when I was dealing with my mother’s cancer, my parents were separated and so, I was the only other ‘adult’ shouldering the burden at home. I felt overwhelmed and bogged down by the weight of this huge responsibility, but simultaneously trying not to show my mother how I was feeling.
From personal experience, I have picked up a few tips on how to better handle the situation and on how to allow yourself to be more open to help - especially if your parents don’t live together and you end up being the closest thing to an ‘adult’. It is definitely not an easy experience to go through and these tips do not, in any way, sugar coat the situation of offer an off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all solution, but I believe that they can help and be fruitful in how we deal with the sickness of a parent.
Maintain a support system This is, in my opinion, the most important thing to do in times like these. It is beneficial, if not necessary, to have a good, supportive system of people whom you can turn to during this difficult time. Be it friends, family or anyone close to the parent, try as much as possible to reach out and allow these people to help whenever possible. Having people who can help you with tasks or in offering to do ‘parent things’ such as cook you a meal or drive you somewhere - if the parent is too unwell to do so, or even simply to chat with and tell them how you feel, is enough to make all the difference at times. Do not try to do it alone because this can lead you to start feeling drained -both physically and emotionally - leading to problems such as depression, chronic stress disorders, or anxiety. I know that for some, this can be difficult to do since they may think they can handle it on their own (me included), however, trust me when I say that if people offer the help, they mean it and you should try to take it when possible.
Seek professional help if you feel you need it Asking for help is perfectly okay, and a natural thing to do in times like this. If you feel like you are moving further and further away from your ‘normal’ self, it may be a good time to seek professional help. Speaking from experience, I began therapy when my mother was diagnosed, and it helped me sort through my feelings as well as validate them. It is common in this situation for us to put our needs and feelings aside, and only take notice of our parents’, however this does more harm than good since you end up keeping everything bottled up inside. Having an outlet, such as a therapy session, can help you have a safe space where you can cry, swear, be angry and talk as you feel, so that in this way you are expressing and realising your pent-up feelings, allowing yourself to feel better, both mentally and physically.
Take it day by day – hour by hour It is very easy to get caught up in anxious, catastrophic, and overwhelming thoughts and ‘what ifs?’. Being an anxious person by nature, I suffered from spiralling down into worries about what would happen next. However, try as much as possible to focus and ground yourself in the now and on what symptoms, treatment and problems your parent is currently experiencing. These scary thoughts are natural, and it is completely normal to feel apprehensive and doomed at times, however this will only make you feel worse, so try to rein this in, stop yourself from such thoughts whenever you notice yourself spiralling. It can help to be mindful and to maybe distract yourself, so that in this way you won’t end up in a bad mental state of anxiety and fear.
Continue to maintain your hobbies, activities and outings This is a crucial point. One thing which people who have a sick parent must remember is that although the sickness of their parent effects their lives, it isn’t them who are sick – even though this may bring about feelings of guilt and shame. This means that, yes one will feel impacted by the sickness of their parent, but they still have a separate life to lead. This was one of the most shocking truths my therapist had said to me, and even though it was shocking to hear (because shouldn’t I put my life on hold if someone I love is suffering?), it also made perfect sense. So, by engaging in things which are a part of your life and keeping to a normative routine, you do not put your life on hold because of this sickness - because you are separate from your parent. Apart from the fact that such activities serve as a means of distraction, form of relaxation, health and wellbeing, and an outlet for what you are going through. This doesn’t mean completely abandoning ship, but trying to maintain some semblance of normality and balance, in which you can be there for your parent, while also living your own, separate life.
Of course, this may not remain valid if your parent becomes terminally ill and you become aware that their days are numbered. It is a perfectly legitimate choice to cease ‘life as usual’ to spend their last days by their side cherishing them entirely. These are very personal choices that only you can make.
It is perfectly okay to have bad days. Being a supportive son/daughter to your parent, maintaining a more mature role, together with the stress and worries of the sickness itself can take it’s toll, and on some days, being brave and supportive is just too damn tiring. This is perfectly okay, and you don’t have to feel guilty about feeling down or sad on some days. It is okay to have days were all you can do is wallow and cry, or stay in bed eating ice-cream. You are only human and you cannot be expected to always sustain a strong front. So having some bad days and resting instead of being positive or stronger (just because you breakdown a bit, doesn’t mean you aren’t strong), is completely valid and something you should let yourself do. You shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling bad on some days, letting yourself feel and replenish, is key to continuing to support both yourself, and your parent. It is also normal to have arguments, tension or conflict with your sick parents – because that’s what happens in real families!
This life experience isn’t an easy one and it is different for everyone, depending on the sickness and family dynamic present. It is always difficult to watch someone you love suffer. I hope these 5 tips can serve as a reminder that certain things can make the situation a little bit easier, and most of all remind you that you are only human and that you shouldn’t go through this alone or feel bad for being imperfect (human) ♥️