I watched the young man as he helped his mother to sit down at the table opposite me in the hospital cafe. While his hands and movements were gentle and caring, his eyes avoided making contact with hers, and his tone was flat and lifeless. What, I wondered, was going on for this young man, as he arranged the bag and tubes of her mobile nebuliser and passed her the tray with her lunch.
When we were growing up we were told how to react when someone was sick. We were told we should sympathise, do what we could to support them, and expect less of them until they’re back on their feet again.
But it’s not always as straightforward as that, is it? Sometimes the feelings that arise when a loved one falls sick can be as scary as they are complex.
Even if the illness is minor, fear can be there: Fear of the pain and suffering that they may have to endure, fear that they may get worse and die, fear that their illness may last for a long time, fear that the life we have known together will change in some as yet unknown way, or even fear that our own needs may get pushed out of the way.
Sometimes the feeling can be anger, that a loved one may have fallen victim in this way, that our lives are being disrupted, that others are not suffering when we are. Sometimes this anger can be felt towards God or some other higher power, or towards someone who may have failed the loved one in some way by spreading germs, or not providing the health care or healing we might have expected. Sometimes we may even feel angry towards the sick loved one, and this can be a difficult feeling to manage, bringing with it more suffering in the form of shame or guilt about having such feelings.
Sometimes, especially if illness has been a regular occurrence demanding much of us, resentment towards the loved one may be felt. Our own lives and other priorities may have to be put on hold while the greater needs of the patient take precedence.
The expectation that we should always feel wholly supportive of others in their illness is hard to shift, carrying as it does the high moral ground of being the bigger or better person. We might want to feel so, but underneath, there might be more. Denying the darker side of our feelings may result in us sabotaging our efforts to be supportive. We may find ourselves putting off our visits, or forgetting little errands that they have asked of us, or we may be short or irritable around them.
Denying our feelings can drain our energy, and cause us to to turn upon ourselves. Whatever our feelings, perhaps it’s better to acknowledge them for what they are, just feelings. At least then, we can choose how we want to behave, rather than allowing them to control us. And when our resources are being challenged by someone we love being sick, we need all the support we can get, from ourselves as well as from everyone else. So try to love yourself whatever those feelings.