Helping Your Family When a Member is Seriously Ill

Helping Your Family When a Member is Seriously Ill

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

You have learned that someone in your family is seriously ill. You want to help the ill preson as well as your family. This article will guide you in ways to turn your cares and concerns into positive actions.

The Shock of the News

Learning that someone in your family is seriously ill is a blow to everyone the news touches. We sometimes think this only happens in other families, but now it is happening to yours. If the onset of the illness was sudden or unexpected, you and the rest of your family will likely feel shock and numbness at first. This is a natural and necessary response to painful news.

You can only cope with this new reality in doses. You will first come to understand it in your head, and only over the weeks and even months to come will you come to understand it with your heart.

Be Aware of Your Family's Coping Style

How you and your family respond to this illness will have a lot to do with how you as a family have related in the past. If your family is used to openly talking about their feelings with each other, they will probably be able to communicate well about the illness and the changes it brings. Families in which people don't talk about feelings and tend to deal with problems individually will probably have difficulty acknowledging the illness and its impact.

If you are reading this brochure, you are already taking steps to acknowledge the illness in your family. You may have found some family members want to discuss the illness, while others seem to want to to deny the reality and refuse to discuss it. Right now your family may feel like a pressure cooker: you all have a high need to feel understood, but little capacity to be understanding.

Adjust to Changing Roles

Families sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the changing roles the illness makes necessary. If the head of the household is sick, the other spouse may now have to find a job in addition to caring for the home and children, for example. If grandma acted as the family's binding force before she was ill, her family may now feel confused and disjointed where they once felt strong and cohesive.

Such changes can alter the ways in which family members interact with each other. They may be short-tempered, overly dependent, stoic or any number of other things.

Consider Getting Outside Help Perhaps the most compassionate thing you can do for your family during this stressful time is to reach out for help on their behalf. If someone in your family is caring for the sick person at home, consider hiring a homecare nurse instead. Have groceries delivered. Hire a housekeeper to come in twice a month. Your church or other community organization might be able to provide volunteers to help you with any number of tasks. And family counseling can be a healing, enriching experience that helps family members understand one another now and long after the illness.

Encourage Open Communication, But Do Not Force It

As caring family members, we should encourage honest communication among the sick person, caregivers, family and friends. However, we should never force it. Children will naturally "dose" themselves as they encounter the reality of the illness in their life. They aren't able to take in all the information at once, nor will they want to.

What the Seriously Ill Person May be Feeling

Experiencing illness affects a person's head, heart and spirit. While you wouldn't want to prescribe what they might feel, do be aware that sick people may experience a variety of emotions. Fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness and loneliness are just a few of the emotions they may feel-one at a time or simultaneously.

These feelings are a natural response to serious illness. Your role as caring family member should be to listen to the sick person's thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. If she is sad, she is sad. Don't try to take that necessary emotion away from her. If she is angry or guilty, that's OK too. You may be tempted to soothe or deny her painful feelings, but a more helpful response is to simply acknowledge them. Listen and understand.

Learn About the Illness

You will be better equipped to help your family member if you take it upon yourself to learn about her illness. Visit your local library and consult the medical reference books. Request information from educational associations, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Heart Association. With the patient's permission, you might also talk to his physician.

If you educate yourself about the illness and its treatments, you will be a more understanding listener when the sick person wants to talk. You will also be able to help the family as a whole better understand what is happening.

Help Family Members Tend to their Own Needs

When a family member is seriously ill, he or she becomes the focal point for the family. Suddenly everyone is concerned about that one person and her survival. This is normal, yet it places a great physical and emotional burden on everyone involved.

Family members should not lose sight of their own needs during this difficult time. Encourage everyone to nurture themselves as well as the sick person. Get enough rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten schedules as much as possible.

Though the family is experiencing a serious time, they should still give themselves permission to be happy. Plan fun events. Take vacations, together or separately. Allow time to laugh, love and enjoy life.

Embrace Your Spirituality

If faith is part of your family's life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Singly or together, you may find comfort and hope in reading spiritual texts, attending religious services or praying. Allow yourselves to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If some among you are angry at God because of the illness, realize that this is a normal and natural response. Try not to be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings each of you needs to explore.

About the Author

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and presents dozens of grief-related workshops each year across North America. Among his books are Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas and The Healing Your Grieving Heart Journal for Teens. For more information, write or call The Center for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526, (970) 226-6050 or visit their website,