“Survivors Talk” is designed to give our readers a chance to ask a clinical therapist, survival specialist, and sister survivor questions about paddling the muddy waters of survivorship.
I am struggling with my older brother who has not come to see me once while I was sick. Now that I am in remission he has made contact with my children. But he was literally gone from our lives at the worst time. I am so angry.
Dear Sister Angry,
Most patients reach out for support from their key family members and closest friends when they’re sick. If those “anchor relationships” don’t endure the test of cancer a survivor’s confidence in her tribe can be shattered. And this can have far-reaching effects. One woman I know was abandoned by her long-time partner when her cancer was at its worst only to have him re-emerge once she was well and try to re-kindle their relationship. She denied him the privilege of her healthy self since he was not able to handle her when she was sick. Others tell of family members who went “radio silent” during their illness, not ever calling, helping or visiting when they were needed the most.
The pain we experience when others abandon us, especially in our hour of need, has to do with what we call “human attachment.” And while this column doesn’t offer me the time to expand your understanding of attachment theory, I can tell you that people who abandon you are not people you should let near you again, except on a very limited basis. Now that you are an adult, remember that you don’t have to be friends with everybody and not all family is good for you, just because they are “family.”
The dismay you feel because of your brother’s absence during such an important time may be a result of abandonment. People who experience being abandoned by those they count on can become distrusting, anxious and fearful. Your current well-being and future relationships may suffer unless you address this head on.
First of all, consider the source. If your brother has always been fairly unreliable and distant, your cancer is only going to amplify these traits, not cure them. People are who they are. And while I would like to believe that crisis brings people together and heals families, often it only brings out our flaws and exposes our weaknesses.
Next, instead of holding out for your brother’s help and support, pick the fruit where it’s ripe. If a church member, co-worker, friend or neighbor is trying to offer you love, support and a casserole, take it!
Also, some of us labor under what I call “Magical Thinking” about the people in our lives. Because we so desperately want them to fulfill our expectations and be who we want them to be, we ourselves might unknowingly doom certain relationships Be careful of projecting what “You would do” onto others. While you are likely skilled and compassionate in your relationships, not everyone is. Some folks would sooner bury their noses in work than meet you in your hour of need. This is really more about them than you.
At this point, your life is too important to wait on a relative to grow up, learn new skills and read your mind. Unless he tells you differently, consider your brother’s disappearance as his coping mechanism for the stress he feels from your illness. Your brother doesn’t have the tools to deal so he is out.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “Let go or be dragged.” This gritty proverb reminds us to stop dragging in the dirt behind someone else’s poor behavior just because we can’t let go of how we think things should be. Instead, focus on the facts and refuse to hang your hopes on someone who is not able to meet your needs.
While your brother suffers with the ill-timed problem of avoidance, you do not. Once your feeling more up to it make a point to “be there” for others who are in a crisis especially when they are experiencing the dismay of abandonment by those they thought loved them the most.
Pay it forward, dear one. You’re on your way!!
If you have questions about how to take your life back from cancer and live fully into the future with cancer in your past, please write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll be looking forward to your letters!
The information provided in the column should not be used for diagnosing or treating a physical or mental health problem, disease, or condition. Please consult your medical doctor or psychologist or appropriate health care provider. If you think you have a medical or psychological emergency, call 911 immediately.