Chaplains provide keys to finding meaning, practical coping tools for caregivers and families
Cancer is a devastating disease, and its collateral damage can cut a wide swath. The diagnosis blindsides patients, as well as their families and friends.
The Rev. Sam Scriven, senior chaplain at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, knows the pain and disruption the disease can inflict on patient and family. He facilitates a cancer caregiver support group at the medical center. The group seeks to ease the pain for those who are a loving part of the patient’s life. Scriven comes into contact each day with family members who are suddenly thrust into the caregiver role. He answered some questions we raised about cancer, its victims, the people who care for them, and how the disease affects families:
An individual’s cancer diagnosis can bring about an immediate loving and protective reaction from the patient’s family. But the resulting stress and grief they experience also can create stress that disrupts the family’s best intentions. How does that develop?
Scriven: Each family has its own unique dynamics. Tension and grief are the common thread leading to disruption and misunderstanding. Each family member has a unique personality and a distinct way of processing their fearful feelings. Some are unable to do that. But they all share a sense of feeling helpless and being unable to change the circumstances.
Family members or friends who serve as caregivers seem to be as confused and uncomfortable with their new role as is the patient does with having cancer. Is that a common experience?
Scriven: The cancer diagnosis throws a kink in our established relationship identities. Their biggest surprise is dealing with a loss of identity, and identifying with a new role as caregiver. It’s a trip into uncharted territory. They’re uncomfortable with it, to say the least. At one time, you may have been part of a husband-and-wife relationship. Now, it has become a relationship defined as that of patient-caregiver.
Caregivers are often exhausted from taking care of their loved one. What can a friend or family member do to help a caregiver persevere?
Scriven: When a caregiver is exhausted and a patient is exhausted, the odds of having hurt feelings between them are very high. The odds of them getting along go down. I believe we can show our love best by allowing both the caregiver and the patient to be heard. That can mean letting the individual talk about their day, share their ups and downs and simply vent. You can reassure them that their frustrations are normal as part of an unfamiliar and unusual situation. By normalizing their experience, it surprisingly helps them to cope.
Is there something you, as a family member or friend, can do to ease the caregiver’s burden?
Scriven: Seek ways to allow the caregiver an occasional break. If the family has financial resources, hiring someone to occasionally provide care for the loved one can be very helpful. On a practical level, encourage the caregiver to seek relief from their stressful duties by asking, “What are the areas in your life that bring you relief?” Help make it possible for them to hang out with friends, go for a walk, paint or just read a book for a spell. If they need 20 minutes to vent, allow that to happen.
Find Caregiver Support in Your Area
Scriven says he is in the business of “meaning-making.” That involves opening lines of communication between the caregiver, family and patient either by meeting in a support group setting or individually. He emphasized that medical chaplains are trained to facilitate this communication. They can help define their shared experience and make a difficult family crisis more manageable.
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