Advice hub. Coping with illness

Learning that you have an illness can come as a shock. Even though you might be aware that the likelihood of developing a serious or chronic illness increases with age, the news at any age can be alarming and bewildering. You may experience a wide range of intense emotions, and feel very vulnerable. Coping with illness can be challenging.

Upon hearing bad news, the most common reaction is a feeling of numbness or shock. We may experience disbelief: “That is not possible…there must be some mistake…that can’t happen to me!” The mind-body has incredible defence mechanisms. If we pretend that something isn’t true, then somehow the blow is softened. We hope for recovery because we want to believe it so much. Time seems to briefly suspend itself, at least until the cruel reality of the truth sets in.

We may get angry at the messenger who delivers the news, the doctor, the person who caused us this pain, at anyone we can hold responsible for our grief, even at God. This reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a need to know why this happened and whether the illness could have been prevented. Others may turn their anger inwards and blame themselves for what happened. Often this can lead to depression.

We may try to negotiate the situation, either with another person involved, or with God. This is kind of magical thinking where we believe our actions will meet with the desired outcome. Some people attempt to strike a deal with their Higher Power: to stop smoking, to find more time to spend with family, to offer an apology that’s long overdue. But no matter what we say or do, the bitter truth is that things will not go back to the way they were before. 

When we realize the loss is real and unchanging, we may sink into a deep sorrow. It is more accurate to describe it as more a combination of loss and loneliness and perhaps hopelessness. We may feel remorse or regret, rehearsing over and over what we could have done differently. Those around the ill person may feel guilty that they can still enjoy life while our loved one no longer can. This intense experience of sadness leaves us with sparse energy for everyday activities.

It may become helpful and even necessary to talk to friends and loved ones about your illness and your life plans. Many of us are not used to sharing deeply personal feelings with others. Society tends to avoid open discussion of illness and dying. Should you share your concerns with others? If you express your fears, will it make them come true? Will your talk of illness and medical procedures burden your friends and relatives? Will they become embarrassed if you start to cry?

Many people are reluctant to reveal their true wants and needs. However, you may discover that others may be wondering what you want. It may actually make it easier for both of you to express your intense emotions. Crises can strip away artificial barriers and help us focus on what we really value in each other.

When you confront a serious health crisis, you need support. Friends and relatives can provide that. Discussing these decisions aloud with a trusted friend may help you clarify what you truly want to do.

When you talk to someone about your illness, be open about any strong feelings you experience or that you feel your friend is showing. This ultimately eases any sense of awkwardness. You do not always have to use words to express your thoughts or feelings. Silence, hugs, or holding hands may express a great deal. Tell the other person what he or she has meant to you. Be open about any regrets for past actions or omissions.

Time will not heal all our wounds. We may feel fear, rage and sadness about the future without loved ones. If we can come to terms with the reality of the situation and recognise it as a fact of our lives we can move beyond our suffering. Even with our new circumstances, we can find peace within ourselves.

If you would like to talk through the effects of an illness on yourself or someone you are concerned about, please ring the EAP Assistance Line or HA Helpline.