Imagine discovering that your partner, the person you love most in the world, was just diagnosed with a terminal illness. You stop listening: the odds don’t matter at the moment, and medical advances seem irrelevant. All you hear is the collapse of your hopes and dreams with your loved one.
Terminal diagnoses were hardly ever discussed in my childhood home. The word cancer, for example, was barely whispered. When voices lowered and heads dropped, I knew that the person being discussed had cancer. Years later, whenever I lowered my voice, my husband, who was familiar with my upbringing, would jokingly say to me, “Judy, we are not talking about cancer.”
Then the day came when he was diagnosed with Stage Four liver cancer—“a death sentence,” he said, without lowering his voice. I was stunned, frightened for him, terrified about our future together, and unaware of how to help and support him. But over time, from my vantage point as a wife and therapist, I discovered the following coping strategies.

? Above all, take care of yourself. The person you have most depended on, your beloved partner, is focused elsewhere now and has little sustenance to offer you. So pursue activities that will put energy into your emotional bank account: lunch with friends, movies, spa treatments, faith-based practices, nature walks, or other invigorating pastimes. The more energy you store now, the more you will have to draw on later.

? Acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings you have—such as anger, rage, fear, or sadness—all of which are normal. Allow someone you trust, such as a close friend, relative, therapist, or spiritual adviser, to serve as an outlet for these feelings rather than inadvertently displacing them onto others.

? Keep the lines of communication open between you and your partner even if you are disappointed or upset about the situation. The diagnosis is likely to have an enormous impact on you, and it will help to talk about all the ramifications.

? Attend all meetings with healthcare professionals, if possible. Don’t worry about infringing on your partner’s independence. It is important for you to hear the information directly and be able to have your questions answered.

? Don’t be embarrassed to write down your medical concerns before each visit so you’ll remember to discuss them with the doctor. Also, take notes freely or tape record the conversations. An anxious listener can forget important details.

? As tempting as it may be to take charge of treatment options, recognize that you cannot, and should not, control the choices that are your partner’s to make. Nor is it your job to control how other family members respond to the crisis or treatment decisions.

? Once a treatment option has been decided on, ask the doctor about the degree of physical discomfort your partner may experience and the relevant interventions. It is difficult to watch a loved one in pain, but the more you know in advance about pain remediation the less helpless and frightened you will feel.

? Do not feel guilty if your partner’s treatment choices and interventions are ineffective. Rather, encourage your partner to lean on you so that together you can deal with disappointments that may arise.

? Whether or not the treatment choices and interventions are successful, be sure to broach the subject of end-of-life wishes. This often delicate discussion can start with a statement like, “I know it’s hard to talk about, but if things do not turn out as we hope they will I’d like to know specifically what you want in terms of life support, final arrangements, and any other special requests you may have. I intend to make sure your wishes are honored.

? Obtain a copy of your state’s advance directive document so that choices can be recorded and, if necessary, a surrogate decision-maker can be named. These forms are readily available on the Internet.

? Infuse your lives with fun and relaxation as treatment allows. Do things you take pleasure in together, such as holding hands, embracing, and being physically intimate if that is important to both of you.

Hearing my husband refer to his diagnosis as a death sentence, I thought we would never laugh, have fun, or make love again. Fortunately, I was wrong. He subsequently obtained the doctor’s okay to travel “if he was up to it.” So we flew to Paris, where we forgot about cancer and lived in the moment. We then set up a new apartment in Hawaii and laughed while deciding on refrigerators and cabinets. While he was sadly unable to move into the apartment, the joy we shared setting it up further fortified our partnership as we faced the very difficult days ahead.
Therefore, coping with a partner’s terminal diagnosis ultimately means remembering that it is okay to laugh and have fun. The positive energy provides a cushion for the tougher times ahead—and also shapes precious memories that can be retrieved anytime they are needed.

Author's Bio: 

Judy Schreiber-Mosher, LCSW, a psychotherapist and former adjunct faculty member at San Diego State University, is the author of a memoir entitled Tincture of Time: Living Through Grief to Hope and Remembrance Calendar, a perennial keepsake, both to be published by Soteria Press in early 2010.