Bond through life passages — 01 November 2004
Partner also faces huge challenges when spouse is ill

“For better and for worse” means just that. In every marriage there are happy times and sad times, joyous moments and painful ones. When a partner is diagnosed with a serious or chronic illness, both mates are challenged to keep the essence of their vows alive, as hard as it may sometimes be.

My friend’s husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He, of course, went through all the emotional upheavals that a cancer diagnosis brings. It began with the initial shock and disbelief due to the fact that he had no symptoms. It was followed by feeling dismayed that his well cared for body has betrayed him. Intermittent night panic jolted him from his restless sleep to alert him that this disease, though treatable, may signify shortening his life. He dreaded even considering the possibility of his demise. Wisely, his wife supported him in concentrating on the immediate task of sorting his medical options.

He needed to learn more and educate himself about his condition and research all the available treatments and their outcomes. In this phase, he was busy doing a lot of thinking, leaving the feelings to surface later.

The treatments he elected were both surgical and medical. Feeling physically weakened by the medical procedures left him concerned primarily about feeling better. As he struggled to recover, time seemed to crawl and the discomfort seemed interminable. The accompanying emotions varied from hour to hour and fluctuated between hope and despair. It is so hard to be positive when one is suffering great physical malaise.

During that time many people called and wrote and emailed to express their love and concern. The patient felt valued and acknowledged by the pouring of affection. It was a healing blessing and it strengthened his resolve to fight his disease with greater vengeance.

As the patient was fighting his battle with cancer and was going through his difficult moments, both physically and emotionally, his partner was there in body and spirit. She left her job to nurse, communicate with the physicians, supervise the schedule of treatments, drive, deal with callers, handle all her and his home tasks, prepare the meals and attend to his every need. She was the listener and observer of his painful struggles and suffered in her own way. She encouraged him when he lost faith and boosted him up when he felt defeated. Few asked her how she was doing.

The partner of an ill person goes through his or her own ordeal during the mate’s worst times. The physical demands are many and few people are trained or are temperamentally suited for around the clock caring for an ill person.

More than the difficulty of carrying the burdens of nursing, is the emotional turmoil a loving caregiver experiences. There are the feelings of compassion and helplessness at watching the loved spouse in agony. There are moments of panic when the spouse’s condition worsens or is not improving. There are also the instances of dread about the future should the worst case scenario actually happen. And there are moments of elation at signs of hope.

None of these and many other emotions have avenue for expression. The partner is expected to be positive, competent and supportive at all times. He or she can not afford to share these feelings with the patient for fear of worsening the ill partner’s will to fight. Family and friends need for the spouse to be the unemotional communicator and advocate for the patient. Treating professionals are ill equipped to handle the fears and tears of spouses. The partner may feel “selfish” for allowing himself or herself to take any time to deal with his or her own emotional needs while the mate is ill.
So the caregiver operates on high energy extended outward and avoids noticing the internal cues.

It is not surprising that shortly after the patient has recovered and is doing well again, the spouse often develops some physical or psychological symptoms requiring attention. All the pent up emotions and the deferred self-care, come to be experienced at once, as soon as the major crisis is over.

Partners of individuals who suffer from chronic medical conditions, (such as rheumatoid arthritis, depression, emphysema, heart disease and many others), ride the emotional ups and downs with the patient without a definite cure point. They often become single heads of household and are in charge of all the responsibilities as well as caring for the partner at times of flare-ups or recurring episodes. The good times are the times of remission but life is difficult to plan for, since the partner’s state of health in the future, is elusive.

Over the years I have seen many devoted spouses who have lived up to their marriage vows so honorably. These are the truly decent and loving people whose burdens can only be fully appreciated by those who share their position.

Yet, all of us need to be aware, compassionate and caring toward patients and their spouses. An illness or chronic disease of one partner is the suffering and burden of the whole family.

If you are a care giver to an ill spouse:

•Your task is holy and appreciated.
•You are honoring your partner and yourself by doing what you committed to do.
•You may not get sufficient support during the crisis, but your spouse, family and community truly appreciate your courage, strength and love.
•If you can, allow yourself to talk to a trusted confidant to alleviate some of the emotional burdens you carry. All your feelings are normal and valid.
•If the process is long, you must get a reprieve at times, and allow others to help. It is the right action for your partner, yourself and your helpers.
•When the crisis is over, or a remission comes, treat yourself and your spouse to a joyous vacation to recapture your hope, health and connection.

October 31, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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