Emotional Resiliency Tips During a Spouse’s Critical Illness


Emotional Resiliency during a Critical Illness

Your emotional resiliency is immediately put to the test when your spouse comes home with a less than desired surprise – “I have cancer.”  Those 30-seconds in 2017 changed my persona instantly for about a year – I was now a cancer caregiver at 46. My young husband was never supposed to say those words on a beautiful summer day.

I mean, life had just been happening with its usual ups and downs: kids’ ball games to cheer at, reports due at work, summer travels coming up in August, snow to be shoveled, and groceries to be bought. Then the universe threw this massive wrench in our works. In the plan. In MY plan.

Day to Day

For me, I launched into automatic super caregiver mode. It’s something humans just do when a loved one is sick with any disease – without thinking and without needing accolades. Millions of people do this daily around the globe for others, so I was nothing special. What else can you do for someone you love? I had done it before, and I was doing it again.

There are immediate practical considerations that comes to your mind when you and your life partner face a disease. In our case, the school year and fall sports were looming for two kids who could not drive. My new job required over an hour commute three days a week. He needed to be at the hospital five days in a row – all day – for over six weeks. We didn’t know what post treatment meant. We didn’t know what anything meant. What about rides for the kids and dog care? What about after care? How do we tell the kids? Where’s our plan? And, what about those damn groceries?

There are many practical life management tips for navigating a crisis: delegating, leaning in, NOT googling anything, getting your documents in order, etc. These are all tactical and necessary – critical in fact – to getting through any stretch of a family crisis.

Tests to Emotional Resiliency

However, it was our hearts – our souls – for each of us that were swirling the most. This is where we each needed the most help even after the daily “to dos” were taken off our plate by family and friends.  The usual “whys” and “hows” creep in. But along with those come the darker emotional “layers” that Shrek references – guilt, shame, fear, anger, wrenching sorrow, and detachment, to name a few of the monsters.

All the time, truthfully, while I was super caregiving, I was thinking thoughts no spouse wants to feel – yet are oh so common in these situations. Thoughts which haunt you in the quiet hours, during the commute, and while watching your strong, vivacious spouse lose 70 pounds and agonize daily for months:

I didn’t sign up for this. We don’t have time for this. How fast will things go back to normal?

Why am I so DAMN angry?

Why do I feel such guilt?

Feel. Process. Let Go.

Powerful feelings may test your emotional resiliency. You start to feel the weight of your sacrifice. You feel you have more tasks than you can handle. Your intimate and personal lives are totally upended. Overall, the stress of being a caregiver can become overwhelming.

Realizing that YOUR journey in THEIR cancer matters and is valid to is an important first step in your own healing and moving forward.

As disconcerting as these feelings may be, they are completely normal. We may not like them and they may even mortify us. However, acknowledging they are there and facing them head on allows you to process and begin to move through these feelings for yourself and your partner. Staying stuck isn’t really an option.

Tips for Emotional Resiliency When Your Spouse Is Ill

The bottom line is this: These feelings are real, are important and are likely due to the mental, physical, and exhausted emotional state you’re in. You’re not an unsupportive partner; you are human.  Yet, feeling and then moving through them is just as critical as the daily life planning you are doing.

There a few things you can do to better cope with these feelings:

Keep your eyes on the prize

This disease may have become a part of who your spouse is, but it doesn’t define them. Focus on the qualities you’ve always love about your other half, be it a laugh, smile, or a personal quirk nobody else can get. They are still them and you still have your relationship.

Make plans for the future

Remind yourself that there is a future after this. It may end up looking a bit different, but it is there. Try to make plans with your spouse and with others. If anyone resists, accept it as something that you can return to later. You may be surprised that the second (or third) time around, they all may be right there with you.

Communicate your feelings

There is no way to handle your emotions if you swallow them. Expressing your feelings, both positive and negative, in a healthy manner allows you to share how you feel rather than focusing on an event that may have spurred those feelings.  Your emotions are things you can address and change; events and situations often aren’t.

As the spouse of a person with any disease, you can’t pretend to go it alone. Support groups, whether traditional and online, are excellent ways to share your feelings freely and without guilt. Members of the clergy, counselors, and trusted friends are also good outlets. Personal journaling can also be a way to unload your feelings and begin to look at them in the daylight. The more support you have, the better equipped you’ll be to support your loved one.

This may not be the time to share with your partner, as they are having their own journey. In time, this also will be an option and way for you two to come together.

Take breaks

Relief from caregiving is essential for your emotional and physical well-being. Even if you feel guilty about it, taking occasional breaks allows you to step back and gain perspective to better manage stresses at home. Every day, even a 20 minute walk to get air, space and reconnect with nature will help you build perspective and your emotional resiliency. Try to maintain your routines. Lean on friends, family, hired healthcare workers, neighbors – whatever you need. This is YOUR cancer care.

Related Resources

6 Ways Relatives and Friends Can Help When You Have Cancer

Talking With Teens About Cancer

How to Support Your Partner During Cancer Treatment by “Holding Space”

National Cancer Institute: Taking Time: Support for People With Cancer

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Hi All, I’m Rebecca! I’ve worked in marketing strategy in the healthcare and wellness industry since college and my MBA for 20+ years (yikes!!). I’m blessed to have combined my geeky professional self with my passions: awareness of and mental health supports for disenfranchised populations and communities. I volunteer in educating the greater community about the real experiences of those in (and out of) recovery from the disease of addiction. I was so honored to give a TED talk in 2019 about removing stigma and shame by simply shifting the language we use, as this is near and dear me. Yet, at the end of the day, my family is everything in my world. I live with my husband Mike and two teenage sons in Lee, along with a crazy cattle dog (Maggie), cat (Leia), fish, 100 snails and soon to be chickens. While a Jersey shore girl at heart, living in MA and NH since the late 90s has fully converted me to a New England sports fan and avid skier, hiker and kayaker. I guess I’m a perfectly imperfect, harmonious, and happy runner, who cares deeply for humans, and Mother Nature. Follow me on Instagram @mommabear5786 to see what life in a house of boys, recovery, loud music, a bit of attitude, and nature looks like!