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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


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