As you grow up, it’s natural to think about your parents taking care of you when you got sick. But what happens when your parents are the ones with an illness? Although most people expect their parents to be the first ones to experience health decline in the natural order of life, most people don’t talk about how to handle the emotional toll that comes with it.
Here’s how to cope with a parent’s illness without falling apart.
Allow Yourself to Express Your Feelings
Let’s first be honest about this. You’re not a robot; you’re human. And that means it is absolutely normal to have many feelings about your parents being ill. And there will be times that you feel heavy waves of emotions about it.
An important part of grieving your loved one’s chronic illness is to allow yourself to feel the emotions that come with it. During moments of your parent’s illness you’ll experience a range of emotions, including sadness, worry, guilt, helplessness and even anger. And you’re more likely to fall apart or have a harder time managing those feelings when you don’t release them in a healthy way.
Here Are Some Ways to Express your Feelings:
- Talk with loved ones about your parent’s health and the feelings that come up.
- Spend time with friends and family that you trust and can confide in.
- Write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal.
- Express yourself through art or dance.
- Talk with a mental health therapist.
- Join a support group for people with chronically ill parents. This helps you cope with feelings of loneliness and offers support from others who are going through similar situations.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle and Self-Care
One of the first things you might be thinking of is how to help take care of your sick parent right now. And that’s completely understandable. You want your parent to be okay, and a way to show your love for them is to care for them in any way you can.
I want to encourage you to balance that out by prioritizing how you care for yourself. Yep, your health still matters. Stress levels are higher for those who have chronically ill loved ones, and that puts you at risk of developing your own chronic conditions (i.e., heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases).
Steps to Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle with a Chronically Ill Parent:
- Eat a healthy diet. Sometimes you’re likely on-the-go while supporting your parent, so this may require you to prepare meals ahead of time or select healthier quick meal options.
- Stay physically active. Schedule time for exercise (at least one hour daily). Exercise helps to reduce stress, relax your muscles and improve mental clarity. This can be done by taking walks, stretching, or maintaining an exercise routine at your local gym.
- Have fun. Some people may find this insensitive or impossible, but it’s important to take your mind somewhere else to cope with your parent’s illness. Go out for dinner with a friend, watch a movie or attend a concert. If going out is too much, spend time with a close friend at home. Whatever you do, you still need to focus on living for yourself and finding joy while you navigate life with an ill parent.
- Maintain a schedule. Depending on your involvement with your parent’s care, your schedule may change. It’s also normal to have the urge to fill your schedule with more obligations or to clear it altogether as you try to cope. It’s in your best interest to keep certain expected things in your schedule to reduce stress as your parent’s health brings on unexpected challenges. However, remember to be flexible with yourself and take dedicated time off when needed.
Ask for Help
The concerns of your life don’t stop just because your parents are living with a chronic condition. Between work, school and even your own family, life can get hectic when you add a parent’s illness into the equation. Trying to keep up with all these things can make you start to question your own abilities and strength over time.
This is the moment to remember that you’re only one person and you can’t handle it all. Truthfully, we as people are not meant to do it all (even though we may try our best to). Ask family members or others in your community to help take certain responsibilities off your plate. You’d be surprised how people would be happy to step in.
Whether it’s doing a grocery store run, watching the kids for a couple of hours or bringing over meals, this support makes coping with your parent’s illness much easier to do. Asking your school or employer for support as you try to balance it all can help you as well.
Here are some chronic illness resources to consider as you make the adjustments.
Protect Your Mind from Staying in a Dark Place
Coping with a parent’s illness can be stressful and exhausting, but it also can bring on sorrow, sadness and feelings of despair. It’s hard to witness your parent in pain or being a different person as a result of their illness. This is especially true if your parent has experienced a long-term health condition. Reminders of how they’ve changed or how bad things are takes a toll on you.
It’s important to understand that the hard days are unavoidable, but there are things you can do to cope. My advice is to intentionally practice these strategies to protect your mind from staying in a dark place.
Show Self-Compassion to Alleviate Your Suffering
You can show yourself self-compassion by responding to mistakes with kindness. Everyone is imperfect, that means things will go wrong. When you have a bad day, try to be around supportive people so you’re not alone in your stress. Be gentle with yourself as you can, and give yourself permission to be flexible as you manage your parent’s needs and health care.
Change Your Mindset
The mind is a powerful thing. It can make you feel better or worse at a moment’s notice. Give yourself intentionally hopeful things to focus on – things that motivate you to keep going. Whether it’s books, hobbies, recalling positive memories or thinking about your circumstances in ways that help you deal with it calmly, a change of mindset can help you cope with your parent’s illness.
Consider the most meaningful ways to spend time with your chronically ill parent can lift your mood, as you’re focusing on the possibilities rather than limitations.
Focus on Riding the Wave
Many times when figuring out how to cope with a parent’s illness, you may try focusing on how to fix their health or get them back to where they used to be. Depending on their condition, this could be helpful. But one of the most important aspects of coping with their illness is to accept that they have it. Acceptance transforms how you respond to their illness, shifting the focus from alleviating their pain to supporting them and yourself to get through those moments. This is difficult and takes time, with some days feeling harder than others.
Avoid Excessive Online Searches About Your Parent’s Illness.
Online searches about your parent’s illness can inform you of how to support them or what to expect, but it can also flood your mind with all of the worst case scenarios, if not careful. This can lead to unnecessary panic and overwhelm, as everything online may not apply to your parent’s chronic condition.
Practice and Express Gratitude
Daily expressions of gratitude can benefit your mental and physical health. Specifically, gratitude is shown to “decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain and risk of disease.” Intentionally taking your mind to a place of gratitude can promote joy, kindness and calm, which helps cope with the emotions that come with a parent’s illness.
Here’s a quick gratitude exercise you can use everyday.
Put Your Worries into Healthy Action By Making a Plan
Your concern for your parent’s well-being and all that changes as a result of their illness can inevitably bring on worries for you. You can cope with your parent’s illness by facing your worries head on. One of the most helpful ways to do this is to make a plan with your parent on how to support their health journey.
Some questions to consider in your discussion are:
- How do you know when a call to their doctor is necessary?
- What’s your parent’s plan to manage their illness?
- What’s their doctor’s contact information?
- Do your parents want you involved in their care (i.e., attending medical appointments, speaking on their behalf)?
- Do your parents have a healthcare directive or health insurance?
- Will your parent’s illness require more assistance from you or others to manage?
- How do your parents want to handle their care? And does this align with doctor recommendations?
Take some time to speak with your chronically ill parent to understand what they want and need. Be mindful that they may not want to handle it the same way as you, so patience is necessary here as they figure it out.
Coping with the stress of it all is difficult, but it can be done by taking it a day at a time. You can do this.
Next Steps for Chronic Illness Management
I help individuals and families who are living with anxiety, chronic illnesses and the emotional toll that it can bring. As a Chronic Illness Therapist, I can talk through your personal experiences with a chronically ill parent, building more support and helping you cope with the hard moments.
Although you cannot control certain aspects of your parent’s illness, your mindset and intentional response to your own physical and mental health are big steps for feeling more prepared.
Schedule a free 15-minute consultation to get started. I’d love to help.