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Terminal illness - communicating in relationships

When faced with the shock and the realisation of our mortality, it can be difficult to talk about anything as we struggle with the overwhelming waves of extreme emotions and worries; perhaps even falling silent in denial, disbelief or an incomprehensible ability to accept or control the inevitable. Whether from the perspective of the person facing it, or their partner, family or friends, terminal illness can become the 'elephant in the room'. When talking about something so painful, where do you start? What do you say? The discomfort can be so intense that often it can seem easier to say nothing.

Yet talking about distress can help to relieve it. We all have a desire to be listened to without judgement and we don't always need 'fixing'; although that can be what we desperately want to be able to do for those we love. When we know we can't fix things but don't know what else we can do, we can end up feeling inadequate and helpless. It is easy to assume that if we talk about anxiety or fear that we may create worry that wasn't there before. However, evidence shows that actually the opposite is true: not talking about our fears makes them a whole lot bigger.

Sufferers of a terminal illness can be reluctant to talk for a number of reasons, such as fear that it will be too big a burden to offload onto the ones who will be left behind, or that they won't be understood and supported (this can especially be the case when it comes to decisions about treatments). On the other hand, it may be that people don't or won't talk to them, or mention the disease, yet they want, and probably need, to talk of when they will no longer be here. This isolation can create major anxiety and may even take over all daily thought. Bottling up such feelings can also lead to the person feeling ashamed of their innermost fears and anxieties: they may feel they aren't 'supposed' to be afraid.

Being able to be openly supportive, encouraging truthful conversations and bearing witness without judgement can be an incredible gift. This, in itself, can help lessen any unspoken fears, helping everyone to gain a clearer perspective and make important decisions together.

Of course, how we would ordinarily communicate with each other may affect how we tackle the more serious issues. If we have previously had good communication, honesty and openness in a relationship it may come easier, but it's not always about the spoken word. Sometimes just the simple act of 'being there' makes a huge difference: the understanding that comes from sitting in silent support, a look, a mannerism, holding a hand. Positive conversations can be had about times in the past; those special occasions, achievements, funny moments, hobbies and pleasures that gave life meaning, significance and were rewarding. It can be about celebration of life as well as about goodbyes.

The whole experience is felt by all involved, whether we are that person, their nearest and dearest, friend or colleague. It is a time when we are really pushed to acknowledge that we are not here forever, and that we will be parted from those we love, cherish and cannot imagine life without. It's therefore not surprising that 'coming to terms' with any of these perspectives can completely knock us off balance, challenging everything from the meaning of life and how we live each day, to our more personal beliefs around family values, culture and religion.

If we are able to understand what we are faced with and have some time on our side, it gives us an opportunity to plan ahead, either for ourselves or together as a family. Perhaps there is time to do things on our Bucket List, make our peace if we feel we need to, maybe even plan for the funeral we want. This may seem a little macabre to some, but it can be a great comfort to others. The important thing is that by communicating well at such a critical time, there is less likelihood of misunderstandings, things left unsaid and the 'only ifs' that can make endings and closure more painful in the long-term and hinder the grieving process.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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