When we are faced with the terminal illness of a loved one, we hope – sometimes against hope itself – that the illness can be overcome and that death can be delayed. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of terminal illness promises only to threaten life and to do so in a downhill spiral. I know that’s what I experienced when my wife was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer that was not going to go away.
To keep going in the face of such a promise, I had to find a different kind of hope. The version I found required that I accept the reality that my wife was not going to be cured. This was a tough one because the remainder of her life span shrank from a diagnosis of one year to only three months. In the blink of an eye we had to face a new set of rules. I couldn’t have done that had I been holding on to the notion of a miracle cure.
I’m not saying I don’t believe in miracles. I do. My life with my wife was a miracle as were the precious times we had together those final months. But I wasn’t waiting around hoping a cure would find her. Instead I went searching for a hope that allowed me to believe that we had something to look forward to, to strive towards together. As our days thinned down, I changed my focus from test tubes to time spent together. I came to hope that we could make the quality of her remaining days the best possible. Having this “cup half full” perspective helped me and eased her anxieties, too.
Here are some tips for keeping hope alive:
Be honest with yourself about your hopes. Admit it if you wish you could control the situation. It’s human to want to be powerful enough to prevent death. It’s also okay to have seemingly small hopes, too. Hoping your loved one reacts well to chemo, for example or that you will be able to sleep through the night are important. They suggest you accept the fact you cannot control the situation.
Be real, but be ready for miracles. Become informed about what the natural course is of your loved one’s terminal illness. Experimental treatments may or may not be on the horizon of your timeline. Know they can appear but do not hold your breath for their emergence. This will free you up to be able to focus upon the ‘right here, right now’ quality of your time with your loved one. This – not the fairyland version- is the relationship that counts.
Whose hope is it? You may find you and your loved one don’t share the same hopes. Sometimes caregivers insist their loved one have treatment after treatment because they don’t want to stop trying to save them. No one wants to let go and certainly not while there is a chance that things could improve. Talk with your loved one about what hopes they have for their diagnosis. Would they rather spend their days inside a treatment facility or outside, overlooking the ocean?
It is your loved one’s body and life that is at stake here and once you accept that you can help them make the best choices possible.
I had to let go of pipe dream hopes that somehow the doctors had misdiagnosed her condition. I settled for the everyday kind of hope that came my way and realized this allowed me a chance to really connect with my wife in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. I hoped we would be able to go through this together – and we did, even though I was left behind to grieve her loss.
Such a hope gave me strength. In the years since her passing, I’ve hoped for healing and have been able to help others by sharing my caregiver experiences. In the process I re-discovered my ability to love again; a hope once beyond my wildest dreams.
J. Dietrich Stroeh is author of Three Months: A Caregiving Journey from Heartbreak to Healing (2012 FolkHeart Press). For information, visit www.threemonthsbook.com.