Lose the Denial
Start by being honest with yourself. You get no bonus points for pretending that everything is hunky-dory. Martyrdom is not an attractive quality.
Your entire family is on a very rocky road right now and it’s silly to pretend that you’re all gliding along like the Olympic Ice Dancing team. Also, health even if your family’s fashion of dealing with adversity consists of Carrying On, you can do whatever you want in private.
Figure Out Your Own Stress Relievers
This shouldn’t be all that tricky. You’ve been an adult for a long time, and part of adulthood is dealing with stress. For some people, it’s an omnipresent part of adulthood.
Run, jump, play. Take a walk, garden, watch sports. Knit, read, go to the movies. Bake, meditate, pray. Do some of these sound familiar? Use them as jumping-off points to figure out what works for you right now. Then take a peek back at your personal history and see if you can recall the things you did during earlier periods of extreme stress. You might come up with something you’d totally forgotten that will work perfectly right now.
Take a moment to daydream a bit and think through potentially pleasurable activities to see which ones soothe you. That’s your short list. Pay attention to it.
Make Charts and Schedules
You may have locked this all down from the beginning, but occasionally time and events move on before everything can get properly organized and integrated. If that happened in your case, take a break to be sure you’re fully utilizing the resources you have available.
After a period of time, you may have a different assessment of the situation, too. Now you realize that what you need is somebody to make dinner three nights a week, not to provide transport to the doctor’s office.
Start with any lists you may have made of folks with helping potential in your sibling’s circle of friends, neighbors and coworkers. Figure out if somebody has a talent that you can use right now. That might simply mean somebody to be onsite for two hours while you go get a massage or a facial or lunch or a pile of library books.
If there are complicated schedules or specific needs, share them. Make sure everybody knows their assignments and obligations. Have backup systems in place for the morning when the person who’s supposed to be driving the patient to chemo wakes up with a 103 degree fever and chills.
You can share this information in a wide array of media, starting with the ever-popular pen and paper. Printed schedules can be posted. Folks use dry erase and black boards, online coordination centers, calendars, notebooks and Post-its. You can put the whole business online (password-protected, please) if everybody’s at the same level of computer sophistication, or work around Aunt Beth who swears she’ll figure out this interwebby stuff one of these days.
Say a Little Prayer
If you are actively involved in a faith community, you’ve probably been sharing your family’s situation with other members of that community from the very beginning. If your sibling shares your affiliation or has another that is active, you’ve probably also had some participation from that community and its spiritual leaders.
But you don’t need to be a Bible-thumper or a proselytizer to benefit from the calm that faith can provide.
It’s perfectly all right to doubt, or to strongly doubt, or to not really believe anything at all. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer a message to the universe just in case anybody is listening. “God, if you’re out there, we could use a little help here” is a perfectly permissible prayer under any circumstance.
Meditation or mindfulness training can also be useful.
Maybe you learned meditation forty years ago or just heard of a meditation group in town. Now is a good time to update your meditation skills or learn new ones. These are activities founded on the principles of calming the mind and soul. And if you’d feel silly doing this in public, there are all kinds of CDs and DVDs that can guide you in simple meditation techniques in absolute privacy.
Keep a Reasonably Stiff Upper Lip
This doesn’t mean playing a perennial Pollyanna or being unrealistically optimistic. If you are by nature a pessimist, no sib will be surprised to find you gloomy in the face of adversity.
Still, you ought to bear in mind that your ailing sib is likely to be just as scared as you are. None of this is supposed to be happening. If you are the Department of Bucking Up Spirits, try to avoid breaking down in public. At least for a while.
Cry Your Eyes Out
It is not contradictory to simultaneous advise you to go ahead and cry.
Tears can be cathartic no matter how stoic you are. There’s a physical release that comes from sobbing and you could probably use it. Tough guys are allowed to break down, be they patient or caregiver. You are, after all, in a situation that is at the very least difficult, if not downright grim.
It is even possible to get away with crying in public if you avoid eye contact. I am here to tell you that if you cry on an airplane, everybody will leave you alone.
Even if you’re in a middle seat.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Not noticing is not a crime.
It’s easy to see warning signs in retrospect, but there’s no point in wasting time or energy in feeling guilty for not having acted more quickly. You’re involved now, that’s the important thing. You may have made some mistakes after the show got on the road, too. Fuggedaboudit.
So maybe you did screw something up, or miss a clue, or say something you now regret. If an apology is in order, swallow your pride and make it. Otherwise move on.
Mistakes wrapped in love can always be corrected.