Having a loved one get a diagnosis that brings their life or health into question is a debilitating piece for any family. How we cope with adversity within our family unit depends very much on the systems and structures that we have put into place when we are not in difficulty. Unfortunately, this is a piece that most families neglect (naturally enough! Who wants to talk about how we will cope with pain when we are not in it?!) and so we only learn how we cope with difficulty at a time of trauma. However, there are indicators beforehand. How an individual copes with smaller difficulties is often an indicator of how they manage stress overall and therefore is likely to be emulated in situations of greater trauma. For example, how a parent deals with a situation such as a child’s friend moving to another school is often a muted version of how this adult will cope with the idea of death or any threat to health. Do they attempt to subvert pain, by focusing on the positives? Do they shy away from tears, distress or overwhelm as they find this too big an issue to cope within themselves?
Whether or not you have any preparatory work done, hearing that a family member has ill health is traumatic. The shock of this news resonates not only within ourselves but also within the wider family dynamic.
First of all, the person that is affected by the illness needs to become the emotional priority for all the family. This may involve a shift in dynamic as often the emotionality of any family is set and the members may find it difficult to move the manner in which they emotionally interact with each other. This shift can in itself cause difficulty. All of this is natural and normal. The key to this piece of the process is that the family finds a manner in which to communicate what they are feeling and how both the trauma and the change are affecting them. This needs to be led by someone who is not the person affected by the illness.
The person who has been diagnosed with the illness should ideally be given a little time to absorb the information and subsequent emotional fallout. This may involve them not talking at all about the difficult news or it may involve them talking at great length about what they have heard. Either way, the family needs to be able to absorb this and remember that this is only whilst the initial trauma of the news is being processed. If the person diagnosed with an illness is a child or adolescent, it is imperative that the family seek counselling support in order to adequately deal with the tide of emotions that they all feel at this time. Counselling can also really help for a diagnosis, no matter what age the affected family member is. Having a neutral outsider offer specific and focused support is very useful for most families.
Each family member also needs to process the news on a personal level. This will very likely involve them bringing sensitive information outside of the family. It is important that this is supported by the family as a whole as each family member can only lean on each other to a certain point and having outside support from friends and loved ones is a key part to navigating this difficult time.
Anger is likely to play a large part in each family member’s processing of traumatic news of this kind. Allowing anger to have a voice is very important. However, historical associations with anger, particularly within a family, mean that this can become quite a difficult piece. If a family member has caused fear or alarm within the unit in the past, seeing them become angry can be quite triggering. In this case, it is very important that anger is diffused from being a volatile and frightening piece to a legitimate and controlled processing of difficulty. For most families, having a conversation about how they feel is enough to gain permission to express anger within the unit. However, for some, this might be another point when gaining support from an outside counselling service could be very useful.
Hearing that a family member has a diagnosis of ill health is very difficult. How we navigate this difficulty has a number of elements. However, most important of all for most families is to remember that they can get through this and that their individual weakness within this situation makes everyone else’s vulnerability even more valid. Being weak together is one of the greatest strengths that a family can have.