Caring for yourself when a loved one is ill
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Growing up, my life was ace. I had a very happy childhood and didn't want for anything. Even when my parents separated it wasn't as traumatic as some people might expect. Yes, it was really sad when dad moved out, but we got to eat Lurpak at his and mum wouldn't even let it through the door at hers. Understandable given the salt content in one tea spoon is probably our yearly allowance but my LORD does it taste good. My mind is telling me no but my taste buds really are telling me yes.
Given how wonderful my childhood and teenage years were - minus thinking I was fat and ugly every 5 seconds and worrying about who was going to give me their love on Bebo that day- I believed this reasonably care free life would carry on well into adulthood. How very naive.
Sadly, in 2011, my optimistic outlook on life went down the shitter in a matter of seconds when a consultant confirmed our family's biggest fear - dad had cancer. This was not part of the plan. Dad was not supposed to get cancer. I saw dad at my graduation, telling me how proud he was that I didn't drink myself to expulsion. I saw him walking me down the aisle at 30, reminding me that I ignored his demands to not have a boyfriend until I was 35. I saw him teaching my kids that they were Birmingham City supporters, through and through, despite what their other grandad might tell them. Cancer, however, I did not see.
From the moment I heard the consultant utter the c word, talking about emotions was no longer a thing. Not that I've ever been a great talker anyway. A writer, yes, but talking is a completely different skill. My ex and I often laugh to this day about the fact I couldn't even tell him how much I loved him to his face. I used to wait for him to go to sleep and text him how I felt for him to read in the morning. Yes, people, I am that weird.
So, as you can tell, talking or expressing emotion was not a forte of mine. I vividly remember intensely staring at an illustration of the human body on the wall and internally screaming at myself not to cry when dad was given his diagnosis. What right did I have to cry? I was healthy. I wasn't the one who had just been told I had cancer in numerous organs. 'Don't you dare', I'd tell myself whenever the tears started to build up. I was not a priority, dad was.
This attitude continued from the moment dad was diagnosed to the moment he took his final breath on 30th December 2013. Every action, every reaction and every word was based around the impact that it would have on dad. My feelings and emotions didn't matter. I refused every offer for counselling in fear that it would induce tears that dad would eventually see. I refused to talk about how I really felt in fear that people would worry about me when dad was the only one we should be worrying about. I refused to cry in front of anyone and everyone in fear of being smothered, taking the attention away from dad who needed it far more than I did.
I really do see value in talking about your emotions- something I'm getting much better at- but back then, it wasn't right for me. I did, however, find others ways to maintain a sense of wellbeing.
Anyone that knows me knows my book collection could contend with Waterstones. It was therefore important for me to keep up one of my favourite past times, especially when dad was at Warwick Myton Hospice. I love a bit of escapism and that's what I got from reading. Even if it was just 5 or 10 minutes at a time, I could read something completely unrelated to the scenario I found myself in and live in another world, even if only for a moment. Goes without saying that I avoided any books that focused on loss. There is only so much death a girl can deal with at once.
When dad got moved to the hospice, it was hard not to feel guilty being anywhere but by his side. Any spare moment I had, I wanted to be next to him, to cherish every minute of the short time we had left. He needed to leave this world knowing how much he was loved and being anywhere else, I believed, wouldn't help achieve this objective. I won't bore you with the details but there was a lot going on with my boyfriend at the time too, so there were some days I couldn't be there. Those days made me feel bad enough. 24 hours lost being somewhere else, with someone else. I felt I couldn't then take any other days to, dare I say, enjoy myself.
I know what you're thinking. How can you enjoy yourself when you know your parent is dying in a hospice? In all honesty, I have no bloody idea, but I gave it a go. Even for just one night here or there, going out and enjoying myself in some way was what I knew I needed. Maybe that is selfish to admit but its the truth.
I really bloody loved dad but sometimes I needed a break from it all. I needed to laugh until my ribs hurt. I needed to remember that there was a world beyond the walls of the hospice. I needed to worry about the tiny little things we all concern ourselves with on a daily basis, like how long we have to wait for the next season of Game of Thrones (RIP) or whether or not Jennifer and Brad are really over for good (YOUR LOSS MATE BECAUSE SHE IS A GODDESS). So, when offered the opportunity to make a little cash, I took up a few shifts at the pub I worked at over the summer. I hated waitressing at the best of times (and take my hat off to anyone who does it for a living because you have the patience of an actual saint) but it actually did help me to occupy my brain with insignificant things like whether I got someone's order right rather than worrying about how I would survive without dad for the rest of my life. I mean, you always get some moron who thinks those two things are on the same level and they, my friends, are called dickheads who I do not miss serving.
Dad was at Warwick Myton Hospice for my 21st birthday. Not quite what I had imagined but the nurses went above and beyond to make sure we had a lovely evening together. I really couldn't fault them for all they did. In the day, I wanted it to feel like any other birthday. I wanted to walk around the shops with one of my friends, pretending that all I had to worry about was what shade of foundation I wanted to get. I wanted to feel like it was just like any other birthday, even if only for a couple of hours. So, that's what I did.
I came to realise that to be there for dad as much as I had wanted to be right from the start, I had to find a way of coping too. Being at my best was as much for him as it was for me. If I started to suffer psychologically, how could I be strong for him? We all need a rest at times and I learned to accept that it was okay to do that. Plus, he was never really on his own. He was a very popular man with plenty of friends who popped in to see him. We are quite a big family too so we could soon fill up the room especially when you factored in all the food we would bring on a daily basis for dad because, you know, food is life.
Understandably, when someone you love is ill, it's hard to even consider yourself and your needs. However, I found that keeping myself healthy –in every sense of the word – meant that my time spent with dad was the best it could be.
Life without dad has been very crap at times, I won't lie. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him and wish he was here to share some of my greatest moments. But, I think by making sure I did a few things to tend to my own health, I set myself up to deal with dad's loss a little better, even if it was ever so slightly.
By no means am I suggesting it was easy, losing dad, because I'm still learning to cope to this day. However, I think my individual coping mechanisms gave me the space I needed to respond to the situation in my own way. I know that's all dad would have wanted and letting him down has never and will never be on my agenda (apart from my taste in men but every dad expects that, right?)