Giving emotional care is probably the hardest part of being a carer. Knowing how your loved one is feeling and what you can say or do to help is often difficult. Here are some tips on how to give emotional care to your loved one.
Listening to your loved one
When talking with your loved one about their illness, it can be tempting to try to 'solve' their problems. You can't change the fact that they are sick, but you can help them a lot by hearing their concerns. Listening is a simple but powerful way to communicate. It's about focusing on what your loved one is saying, not what you are going to say next.
Tips on how to listen
- Sit down together in a private place.
- Make sure you have plenty of time. Let your loved one know you are there for as long as needed.
- Put your phone on silent.
- Maintain as much eye contact as possible.
- Encourage your loved one to talk by asking 'open' questions. For example, "How are you feeling today?"
- Try to avoid 'closed' questions. Closed questions normally only require a yes or no answer and don't encourage the patient to talk.
- Focus on what the patient is saying. Try not to think about something else or what you plan to say next.
- Don't interrupt or change the subject. If your loved one stops talking, remember they might be thinking about what they want to say next. Give them time to do that.
- Allow the patient to be sad or upset. It might make you feel uncomfortable but you are helping simply by listening.
- Try not to say things like, "It will be ok" or, "Stay positive". This might stop the patient from telling you how they really feel.
- Make sure you have understood what your loved one has said. A good way to do this is repeat some of the words they have used.
- Follow the patient’s lead. If they laugh it’s ok to laugh with them. If they cry, give them time to do this too. If they look uncomfortable, nod and smile and show them you are there to listen.
This Irish Cancer Society booklet has very helpful information on How to talk to someone about cancer.
Everyone deals with cancer in a different way
You may be surprised at how your loved one reacts to their cancer diagnosis. It's normal for people to cope in many different ways. Sadness, anger, anxiety and denial are all common reactions. As a carer your main role is to support your family member or loved one, not to change how they feel. Listening and trying to accept how they feel will show that you really suppor them.
For more information on how people cope with cancer, see our section on Emotional effects of a cancer diagnosis.
Different feelings at different times
It's also normal for your loved one to experience different feelings during the course of their illness. It can be hard for you as a carer because you don't know what to expect. The following stages may be very challenging for your loved one:
- After diagnosis
- Waiting for test results
- Before a follow-up appointment
- When treatment is finished
- If the cancer returns after treatment
- If the treatment has not worked
Find out about support
There's a lot of support available for cancer patients. This includes cancer support centres, counsellors, booklets and online forums. You can help your loved one by gathering information on what's available in your area. Some hospitals have a Daffodil Centre where you can speak to a cancer nurse without an appointment. Find out more about our Daffodil Centres here.
If you are worried that your loved one isn't coping well with their illness, speak to their doctors, nurses or medical social worker. Some hospitals have a psycho-oncology service. This is a team of nurses and doctors who specialise in helping cancer patients who feel unable to cope, despite their best efforts. For more information, contact our Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you can visit a Daffodil Centre to speak to a cancer nurse in confidence.
You know your loved one best
You know your loved one best so don't be afraid to talk to them. Sharing your feelings can bring you both a lot of comfort. Cancer will have a big impact on your loved one’s life, but it shouldn't take over. Try to keep living as normally as possible. Remember to include your loved one in special activities like birthday celebrations or other events. Everyone needs something to look forward to and it can be a welcome break from thinking about their illness. Living in the moment and enjoying a family event can also be a precious experience.
Children and cancer
Sometimes being a carer means looking after children affected by cancer. For more information, see our section on children and cancer or download our booklet Talking to Children about Cancer: A Guide for Parents (PDF 3.49MB).
The following booklets can help if you are giving emotional support to someone with cancer. You can get copies from a Daffodil Centre or by calling our Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700.
- Lost for Words: How to Talk to Someone with Cancer (PDF 1.46MB)
- Who Can Ever Understand? Talking About Your Cancer (PDF 880KB)
- Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer (PDF 1.59MB)
There are special online communities (available through websites) where people with cancer, and their families and friends, can write questions, share stories and give and receive advice and support. Click here for the Irish Cancer Society's Online Community
Find out more
Visit our caring for someone with cancer section for more information on all aspects of caring.