Avoid Difficult People
At the very least, minimize their input and the time you have to spend with them.
Some difficult people are impossible to avoid, particularly if they are immediate family members, highly interactive neighbors, unsolicited religious callers, or the staff at the medical center. When you need to be with these folks, grit your teeth and take it, then break away as quickly as possible.
Those with a propensity toward histrionics are especially tough to deal with, because while you’d really like to clock them, there are usually too many witnesses.
Send somebody who is inclined to wail and rend garments and sob about unfairness to find a more appreciative audience at the grocery store.
A couple of counties over.
You don’t have to talk about it. About any part of it, no matter how inquisitive somebody might be.
If it’s a work colleague or your nosy neighbor, you can say, “I’m dealing with a family health care problem/crisis/situation right now.” Then change the subject—Can you believe this weather?—and excuse yourself.
Put off further inquiry with “Some other time” and if pressed, “I don’t want to talk about that.” You may need to repeat that last sentence a couple of times, louder each time.
Some people just can’t believe you could possibly mean them.
Learn To Say No And Drop Some Ballast
If you have ever worked as a community volunteer, you probably already have saying no in your skill set, but you might be a little rusty. Drag it out and dust it off and practice in front of a mirror.
You may even find a selfish benefit here. If there were already things you don’t want to do or people you don’t want to see or responsibilities you desperately desire to shed, this can be a golden opportunity to clear some of this detritus out of your more recent life patterns. Make a vague promise to be back in touch when things settle down and then move on.
Every life has some elements that are routine but not really necessary, and you can safely let those slide. The world won’t end if you don’t keep to your customary schedule for a while. And if it does end, it won’t be because you didn’t get the oil changed or do laundry on Thursday.
Do what you have to, not what you think you need to.
Avoid Multiple Hearsay
There aren’t a lot of upsides to serious illness, so it may seem silly to warn you about a particular downside which is universal, albeit particularly common to cancer. I’m going to do it anyway.
Everybody has stories about people whose medical problems were similar to your sister’s and what happened to those people. I mean everybody, as in everybody you personally know or have ever known in your life. And the farther removed the connection (think Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and substitute “esophageal cancer” or “lymphoma” for the actor’s name) the less likely you are to receive accurate information and solid medical reporting.
Multiple medical hearsay wouldn’t matter so much if the stories all had happy endings where everybody lived another thirty years and frolicked in fields of flowers. People are happy to hear those stories.
I loved being able to tell the families and friends of those newly diagnosed with brain tumors that my brother had survived an anaplastic astrocytoma (essentially a stage three malignancy) for fourteen years before his health took an unexpected but related turn. They were always grateful for a ray of positive light and I was telling the absolute truth.
Unfortunately, other people’s stories are far more likely to be doomsaying accounts of Everything that Went Wrong.
You don’t want to hear those stories.
So very politely cut people off. If it’s somebody you see regularly, say: “I’m sorry, but I really would prefer to save your story for another time.” Practice saying it in front of a mirror if necessary, then just keep repeating the same answer until the clueless one shuts up or you start to scream. Bursting into tears is also permissible at this point.
If “another time” won’t work because it’s somebody you almost never see but happened to run into in the grocery store, try this alternative: “Forgive me, but I really don’t want to talk right now. Keep us/him/her in your thoughts and prayers.”
That volleys the ball back to the person who was about to spill her family’s horrible tale of malpractice, calamity and death. An assurance of good wishes for your sibling will almost certainly follow, and you can flee as it does.
If you absolutely have to get out from under the burden of caregiving—to go to Stockholm and pick up a Nobel Prize, for instance, or to go off for a weekend with your oldest girlfriends in the world, or just to go home and sleep in your own bed—some assisted living facilities offer Respite Care. This is a daily or weekly service for somebody who isn’t a resident but maybe could be, and who knows?
Potential bonus: You might find out you all really like it. Even the patient.