Terminal Illness in Marriage
Terminal illness is an exhausting, heavy load to carry–for both the person experiencing it and the spouse who is by their side. During this emotionally charged and complicated time, relationships are strained by the stress of it all. Profound changes occur in the marriage as roles shift and grief sets in. Loss of intimacy and connectedness makes these changes more trying.
Rather than letting terminal illness take control of your marriage, read on to learn how to be a team with your spouse despite the challenges that come when one partner is terminally ill.
Effects of Terminal Illness in a Relationship
Terminal illness brings a whole slew of unwanted changes with it. When your spouse is terminally ill, the stress can be constant. Not only are you worried about what the next day or even the next hour will bring health-wise, but life somehow goes on and brings additional worry with it.
Finances are a strain in normal marriages. However, in a relationship where one spouse is terminally ill, the pressure can be unbearable. Naturally, money is the last thing you want taking up your brain power, but unfortunately, it is a big piece of the overall puzzle. Hiring a financial planner can guide you through the process of managing your medical expenses as well as estate planning.
In addition to the financial strain terminal illness brings, burnout–emotionally and physically–is a major issue for caregivers. If you feel more angry, anxious, or irritable than usual, you may be experiencing burnout. It is challenging, but you need to prioritize your own health. This may mean finding or hiring help to give yourself a break or finding a support group to feel more understood.
You have often heard, “let me know how I can help.” Now is the time to let them know! Call on your people to help you. Especially in this unique situation, people feel you love them when you let them in and let them help. Whether it’s letting someone know you could use dinner, help cleaning, or just someone to sit with, reach out to people around you before you break from the weight you are carrying alone. The best thing about tough times is the helpers. So let them help!
The hardest part of terminal illness can be watching your relationship change. With the mounting stress and burnout, not to mention the pain your spouse is in, the dynamic in your marriage is likely wholly changed. But, hang in there; there are some ways you can remain a team through this challenge.
Remaining a Team Despite Terminal Illness
Being a team means that you share goals, commit to sticking together, respect each other’s differences, and trust the other person’s decision-making. With these ideas in mind, it is clear to see how your marriage could benefit from these things even more when one partner is terminally ill.
Although time may not be on your side, your goals should still be shared. Both of you should share your short-term and long-term goals. Not only that, but you should find ways to support each other’s goals. Getting clear on what each of you hopes for and wants to work for will help you know how to best support each other. There will be less frustration as you eliminate the need for mind reading and verbalize what you want and need from each other.
Sticking together means that you have each other’s back. Even if you don’t understand completely what your spouse is going through, you give them space to be a human being. That means they don’t have to be doing all the right things all the time, and it’s okay if they have a meltdown. You are human, and they are human–give them space and understanding when they fall short.
Not only do great teams respect the differences of each other, but they also use those differences to their advantage. So should you. Use your strengths to lift your spouse and be raised by their strengths. If one of you is better at something than the other, lean into that. Learn as much as possible from your spouse and soak up their goodness.
Striving to be a team ultimately means you are both committed to fostering mutual support. It means that both partners feel secure, supported, and connected to their spouse despite experiencing the terminal illness in different ways.
Ideas for Being a Team with Your Spouse
When most people think about dealing with a terminal illness within marriage, they normally think one spouse is dying and the other is helping with everything else as the caretaker. While there is some truth to this dynamic occurring, there is also a unique opportunity to bond together as a team and in a really beautiful way.
Facing terminal illness as a team gives both partners a significant advantage on the difficult path ahead. Below are the best ideas for being a team despite one spouse being terminally ill.
Accept Your New Normal.
It is jarring when you realize how much the future will look different when your spouse has a terminal illness. With your plans now halted and the present being so overwhelming, it is easy to slide into thought patterns of “if only,” “what if,” and “I wish.” But, unfortunately, no amount of wishing your current circumstances away will change anything. This is a tough pill to swallow.
To give your best self to your spouse and remain as a team during this challenging time, you need to come to terms with the reality of your situation. Specifically, this means categorizing your thoughts as useful or not useful. For example, the thought, “I just wish this could have happened five years from now,” is not useful. It is not useful because there is no action that anyone can take to make it happen.
When you deem your thought useful or not useful, it will help you redirect your thoughts so you can be more present and more accepting of your situation. Eliminating thoughts that aren’t useful will be very uncomfortable. Your grief will keep pushing you towards denial. However, when you accept the reality of the terminal illness, you will be able to move through the trial together. You will be more of a team with your spouse because you will both be on the same page–even though that page will be a tough one to read.
You may think that the time for marriage counseling has ended. However, unique struggles arise when someone in a marriage becomes terminally ill. You may see sides of your partner that you never have before, but that is because you have never been in this situation before.
There are very complicated feelings involved with a terminal illness. Many of these are never resolved or only resolve after a spouse’s passing. Use a licensed counselor to help you through the big, hard feelings that bubble up throughout your experience.
You are in a unique position to help each other through your grief. Find a counselor that can guide you through that process; it will improve life and your bond tremendously. Use this opportunity to share things, feel things, and experience the loss together.
So many people wait to grieve openly until after their spouse has passed. But it can be a tender, healing time if you choose to work through it together. Creating time to put your marriage first will always bring positive changes, even in life’s most challenging and exhausting times.
Own Your Communication.
So many things have or will change with a terminal diagnosis, but some things never change. One of those is the need for good communication in a relationship. Being able to communicate your needs and feelings is crucial. It would help if you did not assume you know what your spouse is thinking. Neither of you has been in this situation before, so you need to hear their thoughts and feelings. When you do speak, speak with intention. Think about what you want to say and communicate it clearly. Don’t dance around what you are trying to say hoping that your spouse will pick up on the hint or read your mind. There’s no time for that.
When you have a terminal illness, so much is out of your control. You do not feel well physically, and chances are that you are struggling mentally as well. Likely you feel guilty for all the efforts being made on your behalf. However, it is so important to communicate your needs and feelings. The people around you want to help and make you as comfortable as possible. Holding in your requests will only create more discomfort and irritation within. Communicate what you need and always express your gratitude.
As the caregiver to someone who is terminally ill, you may feel like you are walking on eggshells. Exhaustion and emotion can make it hard to communicate well. However, sharing directly keeps you feeling like a team. Saying what you really mean keeps good feelings and trust between you and your spouse. Use these 10 Tips for Effective Communication to get you started in the right direction.
Reminisce on Old Times
One of the main ways we feel a connection with others is through shared experience. That is why a marriage creates such a special team. You have been through so much together before this terminal illness diagnosis. Thinking of where you have been and the journey to get to where you are now is a bonding experience.
The positive feelings you get while thinking of old memories decreases stress and brings joy back to the relationship. Here are some ways to reminisce together:
- Listen to a favorite song.
- When did you first listen to this together? What memories does it stir up? What does hearing it remind you of? Do you have a favorite part of the song?
- Look at old photos.
- What do you remember from that day/time of life? What emotions does it stir up to see that place or face?
- Bring up core memories.
- What times shifted the course of your life? What experiences are you so grateful for in hindsight? What memories still elicit emotion for you even years later?
- Think about road trips, pet peeves, holidays, dinners, teachers, places, beautiful things, etc.
Create New Memories
The diagnosis of a terminal illness marks the end of so many things. It’s emotional to acknowledge how many “lasts” you are having together. While this is part of the grieving process, you can use this last bit of time to your advantage.
Rather than focusing on it being the last time so many things are occurring, create new first times. It’s not too late for traditions and special memories. You will treasure these tender memories forever.
These new memories will last a lifetime, especially if you tie them to one of your senses–sight, touch, sound, smell, or taste. Smell, in particular, is processed close to the part of the brain that encodes memories. That is why scents elicit such strong images and feelings even years later.
Another way to create new memories is to break free from your regular routine. This will heighten your senses and stick out in your memory for a long time to come. Finally, working together on something is a great way to have a lasting memento of the memory. Working alongside each other will bond you and help you feel that team camaraderie while also building a new memorable moment together.
What to Do When Your Spouse is Terminally Ill
What you are doing is hard. It takes a toll on your mental health as well as your physical health. Although your relationship may feel different now, you are still a team. Use the advice above to prioritize your relationship with your spouse.
Get as much as you can out of your final moments together. How do you do that? Accept your situation for what it is, get outside help to deal with your thoughts and emotions, speak directly to each other, find happiness in talking about your wonderful life together, and create new joyful moments you can carry with you.
You may also find these posts helpful: