When you vow take your spouse “for richer or poorer”, “in sickness or health” and “till death do us apart” during your wedding ceremony, the words seem little more than an inspiring note to begin your married life with. It is only when an ugly reality like a life-threatening disease breaks in the ordinariness of married life that the vows are actually put to test. So if your spouse had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Learn about it as much as you can
Today people live in times that have produced enormous medical breakthroughs. Previously an illness that was always terminal and resulted in death usually within a few years of onset can now be delayed with revolutionary treatments so that even people with a disease like AIDS can be saved and their lives adequately prolonged. And yet despite so many advances, sometimes an illness cannot be controlled and a person may be facing death than either of you had expected. The best way to know where you stand is to speak with your spouse’s doctor about the illness. Attend doctor's appointments with your spouse and learn what palliative treatments may improve the quality of life for your loved one. Ask about pain management and what medications may help. Find out as much as you can about the condition, first from healthcare providers and then when things have settled a bit, on your own – like through reliable resources on the internet or the library. Also be aware of the various kinds of medication your spouse is on and any contraindications or side-effects that they may have. Being armed with information will not only help your partner to better manage his/her condition but you will know what foods and drinks to avoid and what to do in a medical emergency.
TIP: Read 'Tell Me Honey...2000 Questions for Couples', the best-selling book from Amazon that has 2000 questions couples can ask each other to come closer. Discover new sides to each other.
If your spouse has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, this is a time when he/she needs your full support, notwithstanding your own pain. Keep in mind that your spouse is dealing with a storm of emotions, fears and anxieties and the best way you can help her through this is simply being there with her. If he/she feels like expressing all the tumult in his/her mind in words, just hold hands and listen. Don’t try to talk him/her out of her emotions or offer immediate solutions. You need not even make verbal replies but merely being present and being receptive will tell your spouse that you are there for him/her.
Tell your spouse that you love him/her
While you may have expressed your support for your spouse in your actions, eventually you need to verbalize it as well. And the best way to do this is by mouthing the three simple life-giving words, “I love you”. Even if your spouse is certain of your support, he/she needs to hear from you that no matter what lies ahead, you will always continue to love him/her. Action may speak louder than words and the practical care you take of your spouse may signify your love, but verbalizing them in words is equally important. Speaking words have meaning and they are bound to bring your partner reassurance, comfort and the knowledge that he/she will not suffer alone and can always depend on your love and support.
Don’t stop ‘dating’
If your spouse, despite the illness, is able to continue with some sort of daily life, make space for romance as well. Having a terminally ill spouse need not only be about what you cannot do or experience. Admittedly you may have to avoid physically rigorous activities like mountain biking or wind surfing but then you can drive to the hills and have a picnic by a gurgling stream or simply laze at a beach on a sunny day. You both can explore art galleries, historical monuments or take up a hobby or a course together. Even when your partner is not particularly feeling well, you can arrange for a ‘home date’, playing your favorite DVD or reading out love poems to one another. There are innumerable ways you can enjoy each other’s company while safeguarding your partner’s health. You can even leave for short vacations provided it is not too tiring or the weather too hostile.
Likewise remember to show affection for your spouse with physical gestures. Keep in mind that your relationship is that of a couple and not that of a caregiver and a patient. One of the prime anxieties of terminally ill patients is that they will no longer be attractive as before to their healthy spouses. The best way you can reassure your partner that you still find him/her attractive and will never leave him/her is by showering them with physical affection. Hug and kiss your spouse as often as you can. Caress their cheeks or give their hand a romantic squeeze if you find her feeling down.
When family and friends come to know that your spouse has a terminal illness, many among them will ask if they can do something for you both. At such times, don’t hesitate to say ‘yes’. You may have never been comfortable depending upon others before, but this time accept help from people who actually love and care for your family. Explore all the ways how friends and family can pitch in at this crucial time. While neighbors could sign for packages in your absence or stock up your groceries, parents could help out by looking after your kids. Co-workers on the other hand could send you project updates and resources by mail. And the best part about this circle of support is that the people asking to help need your ‘yes’ as much as you. It gives humans a sense of being able to do something positive about this insidious disease that seems beyond everybody’s control.
Alternatively if you are looking at a long term invalidity of your spouse, consider hospice care. Hospice can provide medical care in your home to the terminally ill, thus leaving you free to go on with your job or take care of the kids. Your spouse's hospital social worker or doctor can provide information on hospices services in your area, and the cost is usually covered by health insurance.
Look after yourself
There are innumerable potentially fatal diseases for which there is no cure. And some of them like AIDS can be spread by sexual, intimate or body contact. So when married to a terminally ill person, take care that you don’t put yourself in any danger of contracting the disease. Don’t be misled by sentimental notions of sharing in your partner’s condition into exposing yourself to danger. Keeping yourself safe not only implies that you value the relationship and thus wish to avoid unnecessary complications but is also important when you may have kids depending on you. Similarly if you find it increasingly difficult to cope with the emotional consequences of your spouse’s illness, by all means explore the option of therapy or counseling.
Finally seek to come to terms with the situation. Many doctors and counselors believe that acceptance of the reality of illness can go a long way in easing the pain and helping you to live for the moment. However acceptance of the inevitability of your partner’s illness may take time and it comes more easily to some than others. Indeed you can even take recourse to spirituality and faith since all the major religions preach acceptance of God’s will in some form or other. At the same time though, identify and make use of the choices you have. Adapt yourself to the opportunities at your disposal and use every available strategy that can help you in having a positive and fulfilling relationship with your spouse for the time that you have together.