The reason I starting this blog, was to be open and honest about how the diagnosis of cancer effects our whole family. I’m cringing inside as I try and formulate the words for this posting. So, let me give you some background.
I married at twenty years old, and had four beautiful children. Jonathan, Joshua, Jillian, and Jennifer (yeah I know, the 4 J thing). I was married to their father for 18 years. During that time, life was difficult dealing with an alcoholic husband/father, and all that entails. Once divorced, life was challenging as a single parent. But I will tell you this. We had a happy, happy, loving home. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on extras, but we had more than enough love to go around. I spent a lot of time focusing on the kids emotional well being. For me, that was the most important thing. Our little unit was very close knit.
So now, one of mama bears cubs has cancer. My first instinct is to protect. Then it’s to try and fix it. In my efforts to do those things, I’ve gotten involved in raising melanoma awareness. I’ve also taken Family Medical Leave so I can be with Jillian when she needs me. But all of these things effect the rest of my family, especially the siblings. I instinctively know this, but I’ve done some research to better understand the emotions experienced by those “left behind”.
Emotional responses of the sibling
Brothers and sisters are shaken to the very core by cancer in the family. Their parents, the leaders of the family clan, are immobile for a while. There is no time, and little energy, to focus on the siblings. During this major crisis for the siblings—this time when they are flooded with anger and concern, jealousy and love, when they are in conflict as never before—they often have no one to turn to for help. They may feel utterly alone, abandoned, desolate in their pain.
Children really worry about their sick brother or sister. It is hard for them to watch someone they love be hurt by needles, sickened by medicines, lose weight, and be bald. It is hard to feel so healthy and full of energy when the brother or sister has to stay indoors because of weakness or low blood counts. The siblings may also be old enough to understand that death is a possibility. There are plenty of reasons for concern.
The diagnosis of cancer changes children’s views that the world is a safe place. They feel vulnerable, and they are afraid. Depending on their age, siblings worry that their brother or sister may get sicker or may die. Some siblings develop symptoms of illness in an attempt to regain attention from the parents.
Despite feeling concern for the ill brother or sister, almost all siblings also feel jealous. Presents and cards flood in for the sick child, Mom and Dad stay at the hospital with the sick child, and most conversations evolve around the sick child. When the siblings go out to play, the neighbors ask about the sick child. At school, teachers are concerned about the sick child. Is it any wonder that they feel jealous? The siblings’ lives are in turmoil, and, being human they feel a need to blame someone. It’s natural for them to think that if their brother didn’t get sick, life would be back to normal.
Beyond feeling guilt for causing the cancer, most siblings feel shame for their normal emotional responses to cancer like anger and jealousy. They think, “How can I feel this way about my brother when he’s so sick?”
When parental attention revolves around the sick child, siblings may feel isolated and resentful. Even when parents make a conscious effort not to be so preoccupied with the ill child, siblings still perceive that they are not getting their fair share of attention and may feel rejected.
Siblings have many very good reasons to be sad. They miss their parents and the time they used to spend together. They miss the life they used to have, the one they were comfortable with. They worry that their brother or sister may die. Some children show their sadness by crying often; others withdraw and become depressed. Often children confide in relatives or friends that they think their parents don’t love them anymore.
Children’s lives are disrupted by a brother or sister’s diagnosis of cancer, and it can make siblings very angry. Questions such as “Why did this happen to us?” or “Why can’t things be the way they used to be?” are common. Children’s anger may be directed at their sick brother, their parents, relatives, friends, or doctor.
· Concern about parents
Exhausted parents often are not aware of the strong feelings of their healthy children. They sometimes assume that children understand that they are loved and would be getting the same attention if they were the one who had cancer. But siblings frequently do not share their powerful feelings of anger, jealousy, or worry because they love their parents and do not want to place additional burdens on them. It is all too common to hear siblings say, “I have to be the strong one. I don’t want to cause my parents any more pain.”
In conclusion, I realize that my kids aren’t young children anymore, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize that to some extent, they experience all of the emotions I’ve listed. I know I’m just one person, and certainly not super mom, but there is power in knowledge. Thank you God for putting this on my heart this past week. With His help, I will try to be more mindful of my other children that may feel “left behind”.
So today, is Jenni day. All day.