How can I best support my mother?

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Talking on behalf of her mum and about caring for her mum, Kiran’s story is about how difficult it is when everyone is hiding their feelings and essentially putting on a brave face

Q&A with Dr Elaine Mayon-White, Counselling Psychologist ‘How can I best support my mother?’

Kiran: Those of us who are supporting, the Cancer Warriors, or ACC warriors, what is it we can do to be in a place that's kind for ourselves, but also for the people who we are supporting?

Dr Mayon-White: I think when you're a carer, the most important thing is the compassion, because we really need you to look after yourself first. And I think when you're caring, it's very easy to try and push your own needs to one side because you're so worried about the other person and you think, 'well, I don't have cancer, I'm fine'. But actually, like you're saying, there's this huge emotional and mental health difficulty that goes on. So, you know it's that old adage, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else.

You should do a check in with where you're at. The challenge is you can't force someone to talk about something, you know, and sometimes people disengage, as I said, as a protective mechanism, because they're not ready to or maybe they don't have the resilience to actually engage in the more difficult stuff. But what can be really helpful is modelling, and I think sometimes if we can show that we're OK with the difficult stuff, it can very much give permission to others. 

So it might be something as simple as saying 'I find it, I'm finding the cancer really, really difficult to deal with. Do you ever have those feelings?' or 'Do you know what? Last night I couldn't sleep because I was so worried about the scan. Does that ever happen to you?'  So you're talking about your own experiences, your own feelings - you're not forcing the conversation with your mom.

She can say 'No , I don't ever have worry about that' or 'I'm fine'. But what you're doing is letting her know that you find it difficult, and that's why I always say it's OK if we get upset. It's really important to be comfortable with the difficult feelings. So, if you need to cry, cry, and if your mom sees you, maybe that's going to help. And you can say 'this is tough, this is really hard and I often wonder if you have the same sort of feelings and it kind of makes me sad that you're not able to share them with me. So I really hope you've got someone to share them with'.

So, again, it's about that sort of modelling process where we're saying I have these difficult feelings, I find it hard, do you?  Trying to create a curiosity.

There are techniques that we do in families very often, we do it with younger children, but I think they work just as well with adults, and that's kind of taking this idea of 'worry time' a bit further. So what we do is everyone writes down their worries and they put it in a jar, doesn't have to say who it's from or why, over time gradually. And then everyone picks out a worry and you go through it. And this could be done at the end of a family meal time , for example, because, you know, you're absolutely right, what we're looking for is to get you guys talking, and talking in a really honest way, because the chances are if you're able to take that next step, you're going to be able to support each other a bit better. Everyone's going to feel a bit more emotionally resilient because everyone's understanding each other a bit better . And that's only going to help you.

The only other thing I would say is that it's sometimes really helpful if you do joint or family sessions with a therapist or a psychologist, because what they can do is they can facilitate that modeling and that conversation and it takes away some of the responsibility, and it kind of makes it easier to do the permission giving that way.