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Fight or Flight

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“Dad had just shared with us his diagnosis. I clearly remember looking around the kitchen table where we were assembled.  At Mom, my brother, his wife and then my own. If my face was a reflection of theirs, then we all were in shock and disbelief, no more so than Dad.  This wasn’t happening. That bubble was burst when my sister-in-law proclaimed that now was as good a time as any to go over his will.”

True story.  Not mine, but one shared with us during a research interview for the Caregiven app. Some of you may be appalled by her question.  While others of you might question her timing or wording, you can understand her thinking. In my experience, responses following the news of a terminal diagnosis typically are given in either a fight-or-flight mentality.

“We can beat this,” or “we’ll get a second opinion” are examples of fight; the sister-in-law’s response illustrates flight perfectly. While fight is obvious, flight masks itself in expressions of defeat and denial, avoidance of or succumbing to emotion, barreling ahead, roadblocking, micromanaging or distancing.   Both fight or flight are physiological reactions in response to a perceived threat; and while this isn’t a threat to your survival, it’s human nature to protect those we love.

Previously I’ve written about recognizing the emotional state of your loved one and encouraged you to adjust the care you give to be certain it’s the care they need in that moment.  Today I’m writing to remind you to pay as much attention to your own reactions and emotional state. Check in with yourself before starting that conversation or commencing that task – are you “fighting” their diagnosis, or “flying away” from it.

This is important.  You wouldn’t force your loved one to talk about something they weren’t in the mindset to discuss. Neither should you force yourself.

One afternoon, when I was visiting my Dad, had laid out a number of personal items – pocket knives and pocket watches, tie tacks and other small heirlooms.  He wanted to talk about what was appropriate for him to leave to his grandchildren. This was very important to him.

But I just couldn’t do it that day.

I tried…I picked up the watch my mother had given him on their 25th anniversary, worn from the years it had been in his pocket and found fighting words on my lips – ‘you’re giving up too soon’, ‘it’s too early to do this’, ‘I didn’t come here to do this’.  Just as quickly the emotional pendulum swung and while I thought about telling him that those were decisions that only he could make – marking my flight from the situation.

In the end, I just told my Dad that I wanted to have this conversation with him, but I wasn’t up for it right then.
Disappointment didn’t cross his face; our relationship didn’t suffer and no bubbles were burst.

My hope is to help you understand that so much of what you’re facing will cause these fight-or-flight reactions.  This is similar to my previous point – that you can’t control what’s happening but you can control your response; and, it’s in the same vein as my next blog which serves to remind you to remain true to yourself as well as your loved one.

We're in this together...

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