Finding out that you have a terminally illness can be emotionally painful. However there are things you can do to help you cope with the terminal illness. To help understand what type of impact a terminal illness typically has on someone’s life and what you can do to cope with a terminal illness, I have interviewed therapist Diana Bowen.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a licensed clinical counselor in private practice in Gardiner, Maine, and specialize in Integrative and Holistic psychotherapy. I got my master’s degree from Vermont College with an emphasis in Counseling Psychology, and completed post-graduate training in Psychosynthesis, which is a Transpersonal Psychology, at the Synthesis Center in Amherst, MA. I have completed parts one and two training in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, which is a therapy that is used for trauma, and I am completing a doctorate in Counseling Studies at Capella University. The topic of my dissertation explores the elements of change in Energy Psychology.”
What type of impact can a terminal illness have on someone’s overall life?
“Although people respond differently when they hear they have a terminal illness, the general impact is one of shock or disbelief. Hearing the news that we will die is unique to our experience, and even though we expect death to happen one day, we have no practice in coping with the fact that it is real. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who pioneered the importance of honoring the impact of dying on the individual and family and friends, and spoke of witnessing five responses in the patients she worked with: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While I don’t believe these reactions occur in exact stages, or that Kübler-Ross did, either, a person who realizes they will die can expect to experience some, if not all of them.
How the news of impending death impacts a person’s overall life depends on the nature of their illness. If a person has been sick for a long time, they might have had the opportunity to integrate the idea of death into their life and to psychologically prepare themselves. On the other hand, if illness has made functioning difficult, then the ability to think things through might be compromised, and coping is made more difficult. It is a natural and human response to deny death, or to become angry at the prospect that death cannot be avoided. However, if taken to the extreme, denial can interfere with meaningful, end of life experiences that accompany death, such as the need for self-care, or financial or relationship matters.
Still, it is important to understand that emotions such as denial, anger, or depression, have a part to play in helping the person who is dying to find some element of peace in their loss. A person who has learned they will die might find they want to expand on the connections they make with others in their life, and the world in general. They might feel the need to resolve old disputes with family or friends, or discover a rejuvenated sense of spirit or religious quality arising in their life. Others are drawn to a heightened sense of reality, appreciating each moment simply for what it is, without judging what is happening or letting expectations determine how they relate with others in their life. Although preparation for death is often thought of as a period when time stands still, personal growth is possible and common because so much change is underway.”
How can someone cope with a terminal illness?
“Coping with terminal illness is challenging, and depends to a great extent on the coping habits a person has developed throughout their life. If a person with terminal illness has nurtured their religious or spiritual beliefs during life, it is natural to cope with approaching death by continuing their relationship with their practice, perhaps taking the opportunity to deepen and expand on it. Often, a person with terminal illness spontaneously reviews important events in their life, such as considering the value of their life work, or reminiscing about the joys and difficulties of parenting their children. Life review is an important way of coping with death because it helps people to reveal their self-identities, and find some assurance about who they have been in the world. Connecting with family and friends, however many or few, is a vital part of coping with terminal illness, because the social support of loved ones helps calm and strengthen the dying person at a time when they are vulnerable.”
What type of professional help is available for someone who has a terminal illness?
“Hospice care is the best professional help for the person who is coping with terminal illness. Hospice professionals offer support to the dying individual by assuring their physical and emotional needs are met in a way that is sensitive to each patient’s unique situation. For example, hospice arranges to meet the physical needs of patients by helping with medications, or supports pain management to alleviate discomfort. Hospice staff also helps patients and their families with the choice to die at home, if this is possible, and through the many emotional and psychological ends of life challenges.”
What last advice would you like to leave for someone who has a terminal illness?
“Not only is there is a natural fear of death, but coping with terminal illness can be more difficult because of the many social and personal decisions and demands that accompany it. I want to encourage anyone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness to reach out to family, friends, and health care providers, so they might get answers to their questions and discover they need not go through the dying process alone.
Thank you Diana for doing the interview on how to cope with a terminal illness. For more information on Diana Bowen or her work you can check out her website on http://www.counselingpath.com/.
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