When Life Becomes Precious: The Essential Guide for Patients, Loved Ones, and Friends of Those Facing Serious Illnesses
By Elise Babcock
It's hard to believe that a devastating illness-and the range of emotions it produces-can lead to positive changes in your life. But neither the disease nor these emotions by themselves will alter your life; it's how you face and address them that will.
Practice the techniques that follow and you will discover simple yet powerful strategies for uncovering the gifts within any disease. These gifts come in many forms: strengthened relationships, new perspectives, and deepened faith. You have been summoned to meet a monumental challenge. With these techniques you'll use that challenge to change your life.
Take time out.
Taking time out for yourself is a way of getting your bearings. A fifteen-minute walk is one way to do it. If you cannot go outdoors, go to another part of your building and walk through the hallways. If you don't want to walk, then sit quietly in your office with the door closed and your phone turned off. One woman used to take extra-long showers at night. It was the only place where she could have privacy.
If you can, exercise three times a week for thirty minutes at a time. It will give you an opportunity to contemplate your thoughts while easing some of the stress.
Keep a journal.
A journal is a tool to record your life and to reflect upon it later. Sometimes just writing about your feelings enables you to be more objective. As Bill Martin, author of My Prostate and Me, says, "Loved ones and patients can put the cancer experience on paper and gain some distance from it." Keeping a journal also forces you to spend time alone, and reading it months later can show you what progress you have made.
Start by taking twenty minutes every day to write down your feelings. During your "time out" write down what your emotions are at that moment. Then list five things you are thankful for that happened that day. List three things you learned and/or three challenges you overcame.
Writing can be a way of organizing your thoughts, a way to let go, and a vehicle to release your emotions. One nurse wrote in her journal every night in order to defuse her often intense emotions. Breaking the tips of pencils, she would lash out at the paper. Often she wrote letters to people she was angry at, tearing out the pages when she was done. It was a safe place to discharge her feelings on a daily basis. She always felt better afterward.
Reach out for support.
Another way to help yourself is to share your life with people who care about you. One nurse told me, "The support of my friends always fortifies me. They help me keep my life in perspective. They give me the strength to take care of myself, my patients, and my family."
Call a friend or family member. The friend may be one you haven't talked to in months, or a childhood confidante-the kind you can talk to only once a year yet immediately pick up where you left off. Make sure it's someone who does not judge you, someone who simply listens well.
Celebrate the smaller victories and events.
Celebrate the milestones, events, and victories that you previously took for granted. Celebrate each step you take and each challenge you had the courage to meet. Take pride in and be grateful for the lessons you learn, the skills you develop, and the new perspectives you acquire.
Pay more attention to life's precious gifts that you may once have ignored: to children laughing, your loved one smiling, a full moon towering over the trees, or the smell of your favorite flowers.
If you adopt only one of all the techniques in this section, this one will be the most valuable. As you begin to better appreciate your surroundings and the events in your life, you will feel more fulfilled, more hopeful, and more grateful for what you do have. This is a way to take care of yourself that I learned not only from health care professionals but from patients and their loved ones. They made life meaningful by embracing every
aspect of it, by noticing everything around them, and by taking joy in things that others may never notice.
Learn to laugh.
In one family I worked with, a child whose father had cancer started to laugh during a session. The other family members criticized him for laughing. His mother said, "How can you laugh when your father is so ill?" But laughter is physically and emotionally rejuvenating. It cleanses the mind as well as the body, and it raises the level of endorphins, the body's natural healing mechanism.
Health care workers use laughter to break tension. In hospital rooms and in support groups, humor is often the best way to break down the isolation and bring people closer.
Don't laugh at a patient. Instead, laugh at the ironies, the problems, the ridiculous things that happen. Laughter will help you and your loved one put tragedy into perspective. Laughter is chicken soup for the soul.
By taking time out, you allow yourself to acknowledge what has happened and to adjust to it. Writing helps you put distance between you and your thoughts. By talking with others, you can share the changes in your life. Celebration, contemplation, and laughter make life more precious.
These five techniques can help you gain a new perspective. You will reduce some of the tension and discover joy during times you would least expect to. More important, you will increase your ability to support your loved one, which will in itself make you feel good. Finally, these techniques will help you attend to your own needs.
The next chapter explores the barriers that may be preventing you from reaching out and supporting your loved one. Have you neglected to call someone who you know is hurting? Are you withholding your feelings rather than openly sharing them? Are you telling the person about some of your feelings but keeping others to yourself? Are you telling one parent everything, while saying little to the other in order to protect him?
You can learn to identify, evaluate, and overcome the obstacles to giving support, obstacles and fears that can be so debilitating that you don't even speak about what matters most. Understanding your fears gives you the knowledge and control necessary to overcome them. You will then be empowered to reach out and support the person who needs you. Such understanding is a sturdy boat that can carry both of you through the dangerous waters that lie ahead.