Whether you are new to caregiving or have been a spousal caregiver for a while, experiencing fear when your spouse has cancer is a normal part of the journey. Cancer and everything that go along with it can feel very frightening. The good news is that the more you understand your fear, what causes it, and how to have compassion for yourself, the more you can allow this emotion to exist without it overtaking you.
What is Fear, and Why is it So Scary?
Let’s start with the basics. Fear is an emotion. Duh. But most of us believe we feel it because of what is happening to us. For example, we see a bear, and we feel scared. But actually, there is a really important step between seeing the bear and our fear… we have the thought, “that bear might eat me!”
It’s the thought we have that causes our fear, not the bear itself. How can I prove this is true? Well, let’s say in the next moment after seeing the bear, you realize it’s not a real bear, just someone in a costume. This changes your thoughts, and the fear goes away!
We feel fear because of how we are thinking, NOT because of what is happening to us or to our loved ones.
Why does this matter? Because we have control over our thoughts. Once we are aware of what we are thinking that is causing us to feel fear, we can look at those thoughts with perspective. We can question them and see how they may not be true. We can also decide not to give them all our energy and attention.
Caregiver Emotions: Common Sources of Fear When Your Spouse Has Cancer
As a spousal caregiver, you may sometimes feel like an invisible patient. You’re going through this challenge, too, but no one is addressing your pain. You feel a tremendous weight and responsibility to be the strong one and have it all together. It’s a tough job when you’re also coping with your own fears.
There are some common situations where fearful thoughts tend to come up for spousal caregivers:
- Fear you’re not caregiving “right” or well enough
- Fear for your spouse’s health
- Fear of what the future holds
- Fear your spouse is going to die
- Fear of your mental well-being
- Fear that your grief will overwhelm you
How to Face and Overcome Fear
If you’re thinking, “My husband has cancer. I’m scared,” you don’t have to stay in that emotion. When dealing with fear, no matter what the cause, there are three fundamentals to always keep in mind to face and overcome fear as a spousal caregiver.
Fear Can’t Actually Hurt You
Take a minute and ask yourself: what is my relationship with the emotion of fear? Do I dread it? Do I want to avoid feeling it at any cost?
Many of my clients are so afraid of feeling this emotion that they do everything they can to avoid it or suppress it. However, fear is not an emotion you can avoid forever. So the first thing I encourage them to do is get to know this feeling a little bit. For many people, fear is experienced as a pit in their stomach or pressure in their chest. While this feeling isn’t comfortable, when you notice it and relax into it, you realize it’s not harmful.
Fear may feel uncomfortable, but it can not actually hurt you. That is important to remember. Sometimes I tell myself, this is just an emotion, and it can’t hurt me. This helps me to relax and allow the emotion to flow through me.
You Can Acknowledge It With Compassion
Fear is a primal emotion. In the past, it has kept people safe and out of danger. And even though the things you fear now may not be physically dangerous, your brain is still trying to protect you.
When fearful thoughts come up, first acknowledge them with compassion. Sometimes I tell myself, “of course this feels scary, and it’s OK.” This allows me to release any judgment I have that I should be stronger or my fears aren’t “rational.” When you take a minute to acknowledge your fears with compassion, you’re able to then show yourselves kindness for the challenges you are facing.
You Don’t Have to Get Rid of Fear to Move Forward
We often feel like we have to eliminate our fear to move forward. However, this is not necessary and is often very difficult to do anyway! As a spousal caregiver, fearful thoughts are going to come up. But you don’t have to give them all your attention.
I like to think of them like a belligerent toddler when you need to go to the grocery store. You can just put them in the back seat and continue on to the store. Even if they continue to cry, you don’t have to place all your attention on them. Similarly, you can say to your fearful thoughts, “I hear you, and we’re still moving forward!” Fear can come along for the ride. It just shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat!
What to Do When You’re Afraid You’re Not Caregiving “Right”
I’m afraid I’m letting him down. I’m afraid I won’t know what to do. What if I’m not enough?
Doubting yourself and your ability to be a “good” spousal caregiver is normal. Of course, you want to be your best for your loved one! However, none of us are prepared for the challenges of spousal caregiving. And there is no handbook!
When these types of fearful thoughts come up, first recognize that they are just thoughts, not “true” statements. Then give yourself lots of grace. There is no training for this role, and you are doing the best you can, even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like enough. Your partner doesn’t need you to be perfect, so let go of that expectation for yourself.
What to Do When You’re Afraid for Your Spouse’s Health
I’m afraid of how bad it’s going to get. I’m afraid of seeing him suffer and feeling helpless.
These types of thoughts are often rooted in a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness. You don’t have control over how this journey is going to go for your spouse or how much they will suffer. Encountering the limits of our control can feel upsetting.
When these thoughts come up, remember the three fundamentals. The emotion of fear can’t actually hurt you. Be willing to acknowledge this fear and have compassion for yourself. You may not be able to control what happens with your spouse, but you do have control over how you show up and support yourself in spite of your fear!
What to Do When You’re Afraid of What the Future Holds
How long is this going to last? Will our kids survive this or be permanently scarred?
These types of thoughts come up when you are focused on things outside of your control. It can be very easy to get distracted by things outside of us and end up spinning in a fear and worry cycle. When you notice this thinking, recognize again that these are thoughts, not a prediction of any “truth.” Then, with compassion, remind yourself to stay focused on what is inside your control, which is how you show up and how you navigate your emotions right now. Remember that you don’t have to eliminate your fear; you just don’t need to give it all your attention.
What to Do When You’re Afraid Your Spouse is Going to Die
I’m afraid to be on my own. What if I’m not enough of a parent for my kids?
When your spouse has a terminal illness, the idea of losing them is all of a sudden in your face. Our modern culture has not taught us skills to deal with death and loss very well. In addition, many of the messages in society and entertainment have shown us people who are devastated after losing someone. These messages only compound our fear of loss.
The reality is death is a part of life. And while difficult, it is not losing someone that determines who you become. You determine who you become by how you deal with your fear and grief. Neither of these emotions can harm you. It is only when we try to push them away that they end up causing problems later on. Be willing to see your fears and acknowledge them. Be willing to get help to work through them. This will be the difference.
What to Do When You’re Afraid of Your Mental Well-Being
When is this going to be over? I’m afraid I can’t keep doing this.
Care partners sometimes feel like the invisible patient. They suffer and have pain, yet no one is treating them. If you are having thoughts like this, it could be an indication that you are approaching burnout and it’s time to reach out for help. I’ve written a whole article on how to recognize and treat burnout. Check out 4 Tips for Relieving Cancer Caregiver Stress When Caregiving Becomes Too Much.
What to Do When You’re Afraid of Your Grief
I’m afraid if I allow this grief, it will swallow me up!
When spousal caregivers come to me for help, many of them express being afraid that their emotions will overwhelm them. They believe that if they allow themselves to feel their fear, grief, anxiety, or anger, it will swallow them whole.
Sometimes when our emotions are so intense, and we’ve been holding them back for so long, opening up to them is frightening. However, the problem is you can’t hold back your emotions forever. Eventually, they will come. To prevent being flooded with emotions, you have to feel them along the way. Remember, fear (and all emotions) can’t actually hurt you! Read Getting To Know Your Anxiety When Your Partner Has Cancer for tips on how to open up to your emotions.
Build Your Inner Strength as a Spousal Caregiver with Coaching for You
If you are struggling with any of the thoughts mentioned here and want support to work through them, I can help. As a coach for spousal caregivers, I teach you how to understand your emotions and get to know them better. I’ll show you how not to be afraid to feel your grief and fear. In fact, the more you allow them, the less power they have over you! Schedule a free coaching consultation, and let’s talk about the support you need.