I’ve again invited my mother, Dr. Rita Bonchek, to write a piece for the blog. Her previous posts on the difference between guilt and regret, grieving the death of a parent, what it’s like to read my blogposts about cancer, and how to help children understand death have been well-received. As a psychologist specializing in grief and loss I think her perspective and ability to share insights are welcome additions to the posts I make. I know that she gains comfort from talking with other parents who have children with cancer and sharing their feelings about the way that cancer has affected their roles as parents (and often as grandparents). Her post appears below.
I think the only thing I would say that I might disagree with here is that I don’t think it has to always be a one way street. Mom refers to a time when I was helping her with problems she had in her own life. Yes, perhaps it’s important to be aware of when you are asking your child for help or advice. However, if this is the way your relationship is (ours is, for example), then I believe that maintaining some of this dynamic adds to the sense of “normalcy” that may be elusive but also can be comforting to both parties. That is, if I am not in an immediate medical crisis, helping my mother with a problem she is having feels good to me, rewarding, reminiscent of the way things were before. If the street is always one way, that adds to the feelings of separateness between us, a strong reminder that everything is different.
A suggestion we both have is to focus more on parents taking care of themselves, finding ways to cope in a way that is right for them. Certainly parents and children do not always have the same strategies to deal with medical crises. The parent also may need support to deal with his/her grief during this fragile time. Individuals may find help in talking to a therapist or other supportive figure or attending a support group for parents.
There are constant ebbs and flows in the parent/child relationship based on how treatments are going, anxiety about upcoming tests or bloodwork, and the side effects of treatments. It may not always be clear how much the parent needs to be parent at any given time. Open communication is so important. One of the hardest conversations my mother and I had recently was one in which I openly laid out some ways in which she could be more helpful to me now. That conversation led to a wonderful new phase of support. She feels good that she knows better what I need, how to be helpful to me and to my family. I cannot expect her to be a mind-reader, and the ways that I need support change with how my treatments are going. I will be undergoing treatment for the rest of my life, so it’s important that we are as honest and supportive of each other as possible. I know that she has her own challenges in dealing with my diagnosis. She feels good now knowing some of the things she can do that are most helpful. I truly believe that is what makes a parent feel good is to know they are a help, rather than an additional source of stress for their child during this difficult time.
My mother and I both hope that this piece will be an introduction to this topic. There is so much to say about changing relationships during medical crises. Perhaps today’s post will allow you to raise some of these topics with a family member.
Dr. Rita Bonchek writes:
Throughout this blogpost, I repeatedly refer to children. Even though adult in years, they are our children. When they are diagnosed with cancer, the relationship between parent and child will, by necessity, change. I would like to suggest how parents can strengthen the relationship and cope more effectively at this time.
When Lisa completed cancer treatment after her initial diagnosis (double mastectomy and chemotherapy in 2007, oophorectomy in 2008), everyone, including her doctors, believed that there was an infinitesimal chance that the cancer would return: that period of time was in the past and life would move forward. When the cancer returned in the form of an incurable metastasis in 2012, we were all devastated.
Families have one type of relationship when all of its members are healthy and a different type when one member is ill. But cancer isn’t necessarily just being ill for a period of time, recovering and continuing on with life. Cancer can be a life and death everyday concern. So, what happens? The conversations change because references to cancer are screened , levity is uncomfortable because how can one laugh about trivial jokes when something so serious is occurring and discussions that involve long-range planning are avoided since how long will long-range be.
Who we were as parent and child before the diagnosis of cancer is not who we are and become after the devastating news. The prior carefree mutual relationship now shifts from both of the parties interacting and sharing problems and concerns to only focusing all attention and sensitivity towards the child. There is now a one-way street. How could this not be? When one asks the question “Whose needs are being met?” it must only be the one who lives with the cancer. The goal is, as much as possible, to reduce stress and tension between mother and child but, most importantly, within the child.
There are some tensions that occur when a parent offers to help a child with household chores, fixing meals, carrying packages, etc. A child’s snappish response of “I can do it myself” may indicate that to accept the offer is to admit a weakened condition. Or, any offer to help may cause reminders that at some time sooner or later that help will be needed. It may be better just to do the chore without asking as in folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, making a meal that could be frozen if the gesture is not accepted. It is MOST important that we do not take personally such behaviors as negativity or curtness. There can be mis-directed anger at a parent instead of directed, expressed anger at the overwhelming madness-sadness of the cancer diagnosis.
It can be helpful to establish ground rules. The parent can ask “What CAN I do for you that would be helpful?” “What should I NOT do that might be upsetting to you?” Those of you who read this blog-post will surely have suggestions that all of us, who are trying to function each day as best as possible for ourselves and for our children, can benefit from reading.
From the day of the diagnosis, our worlds have changed irrevocably for the worse and we must adjust. I may sound as if I knew exactly what to do and employed suggestions proffered. Not so. Just ask Lisa. I let her down. I had personal problems during the time after her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer and I vented and asked for her advice as she was trying so hard to just get by.
I felt only Lisa knew the participants well enough to understand my dilemmas and to help me. Time after time, I apologized, I vowed that I would not involve her again and she forgave me. But once was not enough, even twice was not enough, for me to learn my lesson and to seek help elsewhere. If I had remembered to ask myself “Whose needs were being met?,” I hope I wouldn’t have placed Lisa in that position. Our children may no longer be as available to support us.
When I was in practice as a psychologist who specialized in grief and loss counseling, I tried to help my patients to understand, process and deal with major losses. I often explained to them that denial was an effective coping mechanism if it allowed them to absorb the overwhelming loss little by little, bit by bit. But denial cannot be total and the reality of the situation must at some time be acknowledged. So, although I do recognize the possibilities of breakthroughs in medical science, I do not believe in nor count on miracles.
I will let my thoughts go a certain distance into the future when I must, but I function day by day as a way of living . I choose not to focus on what may occur in the future because it may not occur. What a waste of time and energy that would be. I cannot focus on the possible downturns during the treatment, on any pain or suffering Lisa could be experiencing but is not telling me about.
The reality is that though I can support and comfort her, there is nothing I can do to make her physical and emotional suffering go away. If I indulged in this negativity and worry about Lisa in my everyday life, I would have no life. I try to remember- not always successfully- that worrying benefits no one. If my worrying could provide even a tiny extension of Lisa’s life, I would worry myself sick.
A line in Joyce’s “ Ulysses” states this emphasis on the present: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
To derive satisfaction from life, Lisa and I agreed that auditing classes at Franklin & Marshall College would distract me with an activity that would challenge me and bring me satisfaction. And so it has. The last thing we want our children to do is to worry about us. Whatever we do for ourselves, we do for them. Find some interest or activity that gets you through each day.
Lisa and I have quite different personalities and behaviors. As her readers know, she is very open in describing her thoughts and feelings. In contrast, I was a very private person. When Lisa first started writing, I was uncomfortable seeing private information about our family being disclosed publicly and shared with people I did and did not know. But, very soon, I began to appreciate the role that Lisa’s writing played and continues to play in her life and the lives of her readers. And so I changed and re-evaluated my stance on privacy. In answer to the question “whose needs were being met?” I substituted my privacy desire for Lisa’s openness. I stand with Lisa to help cancer patients and their loved ones live with cancer and not die from cancer.
Our daughter, Lisa, is an incredible daughter, wife, mother and friend. I cannot and will not imagine living my life without her.