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Helping someone cope with their feelings

Caring for someone with an illness can be rewarding, but it can also be challenging and sometimes upsetting. You may feel resentment and guilt, and experience stress and depression. It’s better to face your feelings than ignore them, as they may be causing you discomfort, and may get worse.

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Try to acknowledge all your feelings as identifying them will help you to deal with them. It can make life feel more difficult and make it harder for you function well if you’re feeling strong emotions without expressing them.

Demands on your time and energy, plus the expectations you have of yourself, can cause you stress. Intense or persistent pressure may make you feel unable to cope. For many carers, stress can be a major health risk.

Read our articles on your own health needs and respite breaks to find out how to stay healthy as a carer. Try to look after yourself, as well as the relative or friend you’re caring for.

Talking about it

Supporting and caring for someone with an illness may be too much for you to handle by yourself. Talking to others about your feelings – whether a friend, counsellor or someone at a local support group – may help you to deal with your emotions and the impact that being a carer is having on your life. You could also call the free Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309. It's staffed by trained advisers who can offer practical information and emotional support.

Caring can include all kinds of practical challenges, from filling in complex forms to navigating health services. You may feel confused and isolated, but remember that you can get advice and you’re not alone.

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The hospice staff were very honest in what was happening to Mum, which I appreciated. Not everyone wants to know how long is left, but I did, I wanted to be prepared, or at least as much as I could be. 
Rebecca, Carer/Relative

Relaxation

Try to include some relaxing activities in your day, even if it’s just a short walk while someone else is visiting your relative or friend.

Explore some stress-beating techniques, like appreciating the good things in your life, getting outside into nature if possible and chatting to other people. The NHS Choices website has some stress-busting suggestions.

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Other people’s feelings

Just as you have strong feelings and may struggle to cope at times, others might feel the same and look to you for support.

The person you’re caring for

The person you’re caring for is very likely to have good and bad days, or times of day. They may also try to hide their feelings or behave in ways that you don’t expect. They could change from not wanting to upset you by talking about their illness to blaming you for it.

At other times they may act as if nothing is bothering them. This can be very distressing and may affect your relationship with the person.

A wide range of emotions

It’s likely that your relative or friend will experience a range of strong emotions. These can include:

  • acceptance
  • anger
  • denial
  • fear
  • frustration
  • helplessness
  • sadness
  • shock
  • apathy
  • relief

If they’re struggling to cope with such strong and varying emotions, you could encourage them to talk to someone. This could be a doctor or nurse, members of a support group, or a counsellor

Healthcare professionals can help, so don’t hesitate to talk to them about how you or the person you care for are feeling.

Aggression and loss of control

Your relative or friend may display emotions that you’re not used to seeing. They could become aggressive and angry. Remember that they’re losing a lot of control over their lives, as their illness may severely limit what they can do for themselves and the choices they have.

Try to encourage them to do as much as they can for themselves, and let them make their own choices or decisions whenever possible. This may give them back some self-reliance, help them feel more in control and give them a better sense of wellbeing.

Confusion and forgetfulness

You may find they become confused or forgetful. This may be related directly to their diagnosis and general physical condition or there could be another cause. It’s easy to lose a sense of time when you’re ill and sleeping a lot. Remember they’re in the same place every day and each day is quite similar. This can also increase existing short term memory loss or early dementia.

If your relative or friend had a very structured life, it may help them to keep to a routine, for example having set meal times and doing a particular activity on the same day each week. Similarly, if they used to have an irregular routine they might find a rigid schedule too restrictive.

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Feelings of family members and friends

As your relative or friend’s carer, you’ll be the main person that other family members and friends contact to:

  • find out how they’re doing
  • ask questions about their medical condition
  • share their feelings

Family and friends might feel upset, frightened, angry, frustrated or confused. You’ll often be the person telling them things, so you’ll witness their reactions and may find yourself feeling that you need to comfort or calm them.

A good way to avoid becoming an informal counsellor for friends and family is to remind people gently of your own reactions to any news. For example, “Yes, when I first heard I was very, very upset…”. This reminds others that you have feelings too and often a close personal relationship with the person you’re caring for.

It can also be helpful to make one or two other close family members or friends points of contact for updates on changes and outcomes of appointments for friends and family. Carers UK has a phone app called Jointly, to make communication easier. You might also like to read our article about how family and friends can help.

You could find that other people may be in denial or too optimistic about your relative or friend’s condition. They may try to convince you to be more hopeful. This can be hard to cope with if you know their hope is likely to lead to disappointment.

It’s helpful to remember that you’re not responsible for other people’s feelings and they need to take care of themselves. You could suggest they join a local support network or visit a website that gives support for friends and relatives. There are also some support lines for friends and relatives that they may find helpful.

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