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Sharing A Loved One’s Pain – Guest Post by Beth Gainer

I asked Beth Gainer to write this post for you.  I’ve learned a lot from her, especially during a time when a loved one’s pain is always on my mind.  I’m better for having met Beth.   Please enjoy the post and send it to anyone who might benefit from it.

Sharing a Loved One’s Pain

by Beth Gainer

Beth Gainer

Beth Gainer

When I was fighting breast cancer a few years ago, I fell into an abyss of despair and anguish. Luckily, many of my friends and family were there to catch me. They encouraged me to keep fighting and shared their feelings with me.

But others who also cared about me shunned me, rejected me, and/or tried to sweep my emotional and physical pain under the cancer carpet. Some whom I called for support wished me luck, got off the phone quickly, and never called me back. To my surprise and dismay, those closest to me avoided me. I went to chemotherapy and radiation sessions alone because others couldn’t bear to go with me.

I was devastated and felt like a pariah.

I now realize that while I could bear the pain, many who knew and loved me could not. Some friends and family wouldn’t allow themselves to show their pain to me; they felt they had to put on a brave face so as not to upset me and potentially worsen my condition.

When I told individuals that I was feeling ill from treatments, they would respond ad nauseum, “Well, at least you look good.” This was easy enough for them to say, I suppose, as I was lucky enough not to lose my hair and look “ill,” whatever “ill” was supposed to look like. (I only wish I would’ve shaved my head and eyebrows, for if I looked sick, perhaps it would’ve been harder for people to deny that I was.)

Of course, I also had to deal with the deluge of remarks from people who thought they were being helpful, comments like, “At least breast cancer is the best cancer to get,” and the much-hated “Think positively,” as if putting on my Positive-Thinking Cap would cure my disease.

I am no longer angry about such remarks, for I realize these insensitive comments had nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the individuals saying them.

It was difficult for them to see someone they loved suffering, especially when they felt powerless to help. We humans, as any other animal, try to avoid pain. People who rejected me or spouted empty clichés were trying to “fix” me or deny my suffering in order to avoid sharing in that pain. Maybe I reminded them of a beloved one who lost a battle with cancer. Maybe I reminded them that if a fit, young, health-conscious person could get cancer, so could they and their loved ones.

How sad that these individuals didn’t feel they had the right to share their true feelings with me.

In fact, my brother was the only person who cried with me during our first post-diagnosis phone chat. His crying made him vulnerable, and this helped me feel less alone, for our grief was communal. Others, I later found out, were also crying for me, but doing so privately. About a year after my last chemotherapy treatment, my aunt admitted that she stayed calm for me whenever I called for emotional support, but she “lost it” after she hung up. Although her calmness helped me cope, it’s sad that she could not show her heart to me.

Opposite to what many individuals believe, embracing and sharing your pain with the sufferer is therapeutic for all parties. Doing so builds a sense of togetherness. Most importantly, it reminds the sufferer that he or she is not alone.

Believe it or not, what ill people need is really quite simple. They don’t need those in their support network to cure their disease or “fix” their situation. All they need is a simple “I love you,” or “I really am scared, too, but we’ll get through this together.”

It’s an honor and privilege to appropriately share your feelings of grief, despair, and fear with the person who is in emotional and/or physical pain. In a future posting, I will give specific details about how I was able to effectively share my pain with a dear friend who lost her battle with cancer.

In the meantime, share your feelings – happy, sad, and everything in between – with the ones you love. You are worthy enough to express your feelings. Time moves on, so don’t hold back.

Beth L. Gainer is a breast cancer survivor who writes a column on self-advocacy, Calling the Shots, at.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jessica Marie September 3, 2009, 1:10 am

    I, sadly, used to one of those people who didn’t know what to say when one was sick. Then my own nephew was diagnosed with cancer. After going through it as a family, I now have a greater empathy for others who suffer. I think that there are many reasons why people pull away: they are afraid to be reminded of what could happen to them or their loved ones, they are trying to hide their feelings, or they just don’t know what to say.
    After my nephew died, I needed a shoulder to cry on and not someone reminding that me that he was with the Lord. I wanted to be angry at, not accepting, of the situation. I didn’t need platitudes, I needed someone who would sit in the dark with me and say nothing. I don’t know if you can really learn this unless you have been through something traumatic yourself. Only after learning to have that empathy can you truly be comfortable sharing in another person’s pain and showing your own.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:09 am

    Jessica,

    I am sorry for the loss of your beloved nephew. Your insights are right on target. You are right about people feeling awkward and not knowing what to say. It’s hard to deal with someone else’s pain; in fact, it takes a lot of courage, a quality you most certainly have.

    Thank you for your comment on a very difficult topic. I really appreciate it.

  • Mike CJ September 3, 2009, 4:18 am

    Beth – thanks for sharing that in a beautifully written post. I do think it’s important to point out that not everyone needs the same though. I went through something similar, and I really didn’t want people to cry with me or tell me they loved me. My needs were to “carry on as normal” and not even to discuss my problem. I’m sure some would say I was in denial, but ultimately it worked for me. It might be my British “Stiff upper lip” but I really hated it when people behaved in the way you describe and it would leave me very low.

  • Greg September 3, 2009, 4:56 am

    A very poignant and deeply personal post.

    Many people simply don’t know how to respond to such a devastating piece of news. I’m probably among that group. After all, “I’m sorry” sounds so hollow, and no amount of encouragement really helps.

    It’s good that it sounds as if you reconciled with those who later shared their pain at your news though.

  • Casey September 3, 2009, 7:38 am

    I suppose everyone needs something a little different. I think you’re right that most people would like a “I love you,” or “I really am scared, too, but we’ll get through this together.”

    Others, like Mike, need people around them to be strong and carry on normally.

    I’m no psychologist so I can’t tell you why, but people are just geared differently. I’m glad you made it through, and that you’ve been able to reconcile with those who weren’t there for you in the way you needed.

    People with the strength to survive cancer astound me. Going to the gym I like to think I’m tough, but I really don’t know if I could do what you did.

  • Danny Brown September 3, 2009, 7:40 am

    Beth, thank you for sharing your story (and Josh, thank you for giving Beth the voice on your blog).

    I think sometimes we’re conditioned by peers, or family (or even friends) on how we should act around bad news. Some do it well; some clam up; some try to say the right thing; some always say the wrong thing (maybe deliberately, maybe not).

    As you mention, it’s hard just to say “our thing” and be honest and open. We don’t know how the person will react (although I guess we should, as friends or family).

    Maybe it’s even that old adage, “Ignore it and it will go away.”

    Obviously that’s not the case, but perhaps subconsciously that’s the mindset?

    Here’s to you and everyone who knows this illness, Beth – to strong people and strong friends, and just being there.

  • Chris September 3, 2009, 8:00 am

    Hi Beth
    Currently going through something similar, and have been for quite a few months now. Not Cancer related, but still life changing and quite devastating. I too have the “but you don’t look ill” thing going on, and that can be quite confusing to some people.
    You are so right though about how people hide their emotions and seem cold towards you when they try to appear strong for you. In my case it was actually my wife who was doing this. I learned from one of her friends, that when not with me, she was very concerned, emotional and wanted to show more support, she was going through much of the same anguish and stress that I was, but didn’t necessarily want to show me that she was and to remain strong for our kids. I still haven’t challenged her on it, there’s no benefit. However, at least I know she cares deeply, and if it her way of getting through it and managing, then that’s good enough for me. Our illnesses do not just affect ourselves emotionally, but also those of our friends and family around us.

    I too am glad that you had the opportunity to discuss your feelings and get things out in the open. Best for all concerned when the time is right……..I have mine yet to come.

    Thank you for sharing that, some great points for thought.

  • lori September 3, 2009, 9:12 am

    I really appreciate this post, Beth (and Josh for hosting Beth today!).

    You’ve beautifully spoken for the many men and women out there that are going through similar situations and I applaud you for your graceful candor and style. Well done!

    One of the most difficult things about being the one with the disease is the constant need to make others feel OK. It is really quite an irony. Just when we need someone to simply say, “I love you,” instead we’re trying to comfort them, instead. But I certainly agree, everyone has their own way and it is difficult for friends and loved ones because they care.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this so well stated or eloquently written. Thanks for your contribution today! This is a keeper…

  • Jim September 3, 2009, 10:12 am

    Beth, thank you for your post. I have a dear friend going through stage 4 inoperable cancer at the moment. It’s not easy for me to express my feelings, but when I go to visit her tonight, I’ll certainly have your words running through my head.

  • Sarah Stone September 3, 2009, 12:59 pm

    Hi Beth,

    It’s so good to read about how other people feel in this sort of situation. And you’re so right that being open is the way to go for everyone’s benefit, but equally some people can’t handle it.

    I recently had to deal with a phone call that went something like “Sarah, X’s life support machine is about to be turned off, can you come?”…my immediate answer was to drop everything and fly to be with my very good friend who’s husband had a couple of day before had a what turned out to be fatal accident. He went from a happy husband and father to in coma in seconds, to not being here at all in 3 days.

    Having said that as I was driving there my mind was in turmoil, how was I going to cope with it myself, let alone how she was dealing with it?!

    It was devastating and there were many times when I didn’t know what to say, but I could cry with my friend, infact every time she welled up I did too, no words could express what we were feeling…

    Then a couple of weeks later when we were both still numb but beginning to be able to evaluate our feelings she said “I can’t tell you what it meant to me just for you to be there”, that meant the world to me, just to know that me having been there made a difference somehow.

    It’s a time I’ll never forget…but I now know that you don’t need to say anything, and what you do doesn’t make much difference anyway, but being there for someone counts, spelling ‘love’ as ‘t.i.m.e’.

    All the best
    Sarah

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:32 pm

    Mike and Casey,

    Thank you for your kind words about my posting. I agree with both of you that each of us needs something different from our loved ones. Some of us would rather not talk about it — and that’s fine; there is no one “correct” way to handle it.

    I really didn’t expect or felt the need to cry with anyone at the time. The conversation with my brother and me happened organically. At the time, it made me feel less alone, but given another circumstance or time, I might not have responded that way.

    Casey, one never knows one’s mettle until one is tested. You are tougher than you know. Before I was diagnosed, I thought that if I ever got cancer I’d never be able to handle it. But I proved otherwise.

    Wishing you and your loved ones much health, happiness, and success…

    In the meantime, keep exercising!! It’s always good to stay fit and as healthy as possible. 🙂

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:38 pm

    Greg,

    I have reconciled with these people; thank you for your response. I think “I’m sorry” is sufficient. I appreciate your candor about feeling somewhat tongue-tied in these kinds of situations.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:42 pm

    Danny,

    Thank you for reading my post. It’s very difficult to just say what we want or mean to say in such circumstances. You make an excellent point about how we are conditioned to respond to certain life situations. We certainly are a reflection of societal and family values — whether we value silence, affection, etc.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:48 pm

    Chris,

    Thank you for being so open. I am very sorry that you and your wife are suffering. You raise a very insightful point about the spouse or significant other — or anyone else who loves and cares about you for that matter — suffering, too.

    There are support groups for those who are supporting ill people. Perhaps your wife would benefit? Just an idea. Support groups aren’t for everyone, and we all have to grapple with our own demons in our own way.

  • Your Mother September 3, 2009, 3:50 pm

    As the mother of a daughter with MS, I have often heard her express that something that would really help her as she deals with this disease, is having the people in her life become more educated about MS. I think the more we know about any disease, the less uncomfortable we are talking about it. When I don’t know what to say to people, I just say, “I’m sorry, what can I do to help. I find that usually they’re willing to tell me.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:52 pm

    Wow, Lori, I really appreciate your praise of my posting.

    Thank you so much.

    It is ironic that sometimes the sick person becomes the caregiver, reassuring others that he/she is fine. When speaking to those who I knew couldn’t handle my devastating news, I would often act very nonchalantly.

    Thank you once again for reading my posting!

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:55 pm

    Jim,

    I’m glad I could make a difference. What you are doing is very brave: you are facing your friend and showing up to support that person.

    I lost a dear friend to breast cancer, so I do know what it feels like. It’s horrific, but your being there for your friend is so wonderful and an act of utter kindness.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 3:59 pm

    Sarah,

    Your words moved me. Just being there is really enough for most people. I’m glad you shared your story with me. As the expression goes, “Tomorrow is promised to no one,” and what happened to your friend’s husband is an example of that.

    I’m so glad your friend has such a great friend in you! You gave her what she needed: support.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 4:09 pm

    To “Your Mother”:

    I agree that becoming educated about others’ conditions is crucial to helping a person feel more understood. It sounds like you are a very supportive person. I wish you and your daughter the best.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 3, 2009, 6:02 pm

      Beth, that “Your mother” is my mom, who hasn’t been typing in her name. That daughter is my sister. She wrote in “your mother” about three months ago to leave a comment and has never reset it:)

  • Chris September 3, 2009, 4:49 pm

    How surreal? Further to my earlier post, “my time” came within 4 hours of replying to your beautiful story.
    I went to a local support meeting with my wife this evening, and met other fellow sufferers and carers / partners. It all came to the fore, and my wife actually admitted her true feelings for the first time. I showed her this post that I had made earlier in the day and we realised that we had totally understood each other all along and realised that we both knew it too………how silly to hide it?

    Thank you for your story.

    Chris & Sharon

  • Chris September 3, 2009, 6:24 pm

    Hi Beth, sorry, I read your reply after my last post. Thank you so much indeed.
    Just to clarify…..there was no suffering involved. I think we both knew what we were doing was right for each other at the time, it just didn’t seem so with emotions at a high. I think being practical as a family unit with children can make us so practical that it might come across as cold, especially as we look at things differently when we are subject to trauma.
    Great to look back on things now that feelings are out in the open. Hindsight is a very wonderful thing, especially when men’s “swinging brick” syndrome comes to effect.
    Thank you again for your post! It certainly came at a very advantageous time for my family and helped us enormously today to say what we have needed to say to each other for so long.
    I wish you a great deal of positive karma.
    Stay strong and feel very much appreciated from the UK.

    Chris

  • Beth L. Gainer September 3, 2009, 8:21 pm

    Thank you, Chris! I am so glad that the support group experience opened up a channel of communication that helped your and your wife’s feelings come out into the open.

    I do feel very appreciated from the UK. Thank you once again!!

  • Sarah Stone September 4, 2009, 3:06 am

    Hi Beth,

    Even though it was so hard doing what I did I’m so glad that I did as it became very obvious very quickly who one’s ‘real’ friends are, as some people drop you like stones and you’re left dealing with a whole tonne of emotion on top of what is already there – as if that isn’t enough!

    So if I’ve learnt anything from it other than life is SO precious and to never take it or anyone in it for granted it’s to know who one’s true friends are and make sure you’re there for them whatever the circumstance in the same way that you’d want them to be there for you – as you never know what’s going to happen.

    With a particular good friend of mine we’ve gradually set up back up plans with each other in case of emergencies, like having each others children round if one of us is out of action for whatever reason. As my Dad has always said to me (I think quoting The Bible) “Do as you would be done by”.

    Thanks for a provoking and moving post Beth 🙂
    Onwards and upwards.
    Sarah

  • Beth L. Gainer September 4, 2009, 5:45 am

    Sarah,

    Your words of wisdom ring true. If there is anything I have learned from my breast cancer experience is to live life to the fullest and appreciate everything. I take nothing for granted.

    I’m so glad you could be there for your friend. Thank you so much for your insightful comments.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 4, 2009, 5:47 am

    Josh,

    How cool is it to have a mom reading your blogs and responding?! It sounds like she and your sister have courage in abundance, and I’m glad she took the time to respond to my posting.

  • kathy casey September 8, 2009, 6:53 am

    Thank you so much Beth. I am very new to this Cancer business. My daughter’s boyfriend is battling osteosarcoma – I have not known what to do or say and have been “winging it” since his cancer returned this summer. I had it in my head that loosing his leg in 2007 meant that his deal was over – I had no idea what to expect- so I began to educate myself on the cancer…but still struggling with the emotional side. This advise will surely help me in the future when things go back to being very scary! (Right now we’re in the -“we can breath” mode- tumors were removed and he is living life.) I will be looking forward to reading future posts.
    Best to you- and thank you again,
    Kathy

  • Kimberly Sena Moore, MM, NMT, MT-BC September 8, 2009, 10:29 am

    Thank you, Beth, for the beautifully-written and heartfelt article. Those are very difficult feelings to express and you have done a service to others by sharing them. I have nothing to add, just “thank you.”

    Kimberly

  • Beth L. Gainer September 8, 2009, 1:41 pm

    Kathy,

    I’m sorry to hear about the battle your daughter’s boyfriend is facing. It sounds like you are doing everything to support both of them in this time of need.

    Sometimes the best thing one can do is just be there for the person and treat others kindly.

    Thank you for reading my posting and responding.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 8, 2009, 1:43 pm

    You are so welcome, Kimberly. Feelings in general, especially regarding illness and conditions, are difficult to express.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my posting. Thank you!!