The diagnosis of a major illness can present an enormous challenge to family relationships. During periods of grief, potential loss and stress we tend to become exaggerated versions of ourselves. The talker will talk more, the shy person will withdraw more… all the unique personalities in the family and their differences will seem magnified.

Most of us have ways we cope with everyday stress: a glass of wine to unwind at night, a cigarette at lunch to help us through the day. When stress levels increase dramatically due to major illness in the family, it can be natural for family members to reach even more for their familiar sources of comfort as a temporary survival technique.

Communicating needs to each other is important at this time. Allowing each other space if needed and even developing phrases which may help others know what you need. ‘A code blue’ might mean that I need a morning where we don’t discuss anything to do with illness or healthcare; a ‘code red’ might indicate a need to collapse, have a cry, scream and be miserable for a set period of time.

Your family may be overwhelmed with offers of help. It can be important to decide who is really helpful and then allow them to help with specific things. When someone says ‘Just call me if you need any help’, perhaps ask for something specific: eg. ‘Could you possibly make us a casserole this Friday for dinner?’ or ‘Could you pick up Johnny from school on Thursdays while I am at treatment?’

Despite the potential struggles when major illness strikes a family, there can also be new opportunity for a mutual common purpose that can join differing family members together. Often long standing differences can seem petty or unimportant.

A relationship counsellor can be an invaluable support to individuals and families experiencing this time of crisis and distress.

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