Perhaps you, or someone you know, has received difficult health news. It may be an unexpected result on a test or symptoms which have been difficult to explain. The results from the test or the announcement from a health professional explain the problem, but then what? How do we cope with the change in our life circumstances, especially if there is no quick treatment? How can we be supportive of a friend or family member with a new diagnosis?
A common first stage of coping is denial. We may ignore that which we cannot immediately comprehend. This is not unusual, nor is it a bad thing as long as it does not interfere with getting the proper medical care for the condition in question. If you are a family member or friend observing this period of denial, give it time. Be available to listen. The person receiving the diagnosis needs time to adjust to a new situation. The new diagnosis may have put their whole self image in question. Quiet support from those around them is helpful. If the people who surround the person with a new diagnosis continue to show love and respect, this can help with some of the questions which arise.
When the diagnosis is a chronic condition such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s, the patient may wonder whether the people in their life will treat them differently. They will have questions about continuing to work, who they should tell, and what the future holds. If the people in their lives maintain their normal connections and routines, it will help with the uncertainty.
Once the newly diagnosed person has begun to accept their condition, it can be helpful to find people who will listen. The person with a health challenge can benefit from talking about their new situation. It is important for the listener to listen in particular ways. The speaker needs to talk with someone who tries to understand rather than trying to find ways to “fix it.” It is also important to honor the feelings expressed by the speaker. If they are feeling depressed or angry about their health challenge, listening with an air of acceptance is more helpful than trying to change the way the person feels. The listener does not have to agree, but it is important not to deny the feelings of the speaker.
The newly diagnosed person and the people who support them may find they need outside support as well. Health challenges can be overwhelming at times. A therapist who has been trained to listen can add to the support team in specific ways. They are trained to ask the questions which help people keep talking. They can help guide the conversation between family members in ways which reduce tension as important decisions are made. They have experience with listening and accepting difficult feelings. Consider adding a trained therapist to the team which you are building to support someone who has received difficult news about their health.
June 27, 2015 – Vermont therapist Bonnie Irwin spoke to an audience of approximately 150 people at the Parkinson’s Symposium held at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. She outlined the difficulties which can arise as a person attempts to cope with the challenges of chronic health issues. She suggested strategies for meeting those challenges.