Loyola University Maryland

Counseling Center

Coping with the Illness of a Loved One

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There are no easy answers when a family member or close friend has a serious illness and you are in college. Is it better to be home, or at school? What if things get worse? How do you make long-term plans? How can you best look out for your loved one and for yourself? It can make almost everything more difficult.

For more information about coping with the illness of a loved one and the supportive services available on campus, please watch the following video: Coping with Illness of a Loved One

How is it especially difficult?

It’s not only that you might be torn between being at school or at home. It’s also harder to concentrate—and easier to fall behind. Just telling people is hard, especially if they don’t know your loved one. And it raises many tough questions:  whether you should let your professors know, whether you should go home for a visit or work on your paper, whether you should apply to study abroad, drop a class, or sign up for that OAE trip instead of going home again—whatever, things are going to be more difficult than they would have been.

What are some of the feelings people have?

It is natural under these circumstances to feel more stressed.  It can affect your sleep, make you lose your appetite, or make you nervously eat more than usual. It can make you feel tired all the time, anxious, or just numb. It can also make you feel:

  • Guilty -- Because you’re “enjoying college” while your loved one is suffering. Or because you’re not calling often enough, or you’re calling too often. Maybe because you’re spending money while your dad is sick in bed. Or because you’re away while your sister has to care for your mom.
  • Scared -- What if grandpa needs another operation? Or mom’s cancer recurs? What if things get worse just before finals? What if they die?
  • Annoyed -- That this is happening, that your loved one is suffering and maybe could die, and that it’s making it hard for you to enjoy your time in college—which maybe you feel you “shouldn’t even be thinking,” but this awful situation can force these feelings on you.
  • Homesick – Some students find that they are missing home more, while some find they seem to hardly ever think of their loved one. Some find they are longing always to visit home, while some dread the idea. 
  • Jealous -- Because other people here seem to be having so much fun, with so little to worry about. 
  • Lonely -- Because you might be far from home, and it seems harder to talk with newer friends. It might also feel harder to talk with your ailing loved one. And you wonder, is there anyone else here facing this kind of situation? Who could really understand some of what you’re going through?

You are not alone: How to Get Support

Academically

Loyola has many ways to help you, and the Counseling Center is the ideal place to find out about all of them. We can connect you with the right people for arranging things like special accommodations, leaves of absence, and tutoring, to minimize the impact of this situation on your academic work. 

Emotionally

  • Individual counseling - The Counseling Center can, if you would like, connect you with an individual counselor with whom you can meet, once, a few times, or regularly, to discuss your situation and seek further ways to improve it as much as is possible.
  • Peer group support - The Counseling Center can also connect you with perhaps the single most helpful support of all—that of your peers who are in similar situations. Every week, a group of students, each of whom has a loved one who is seriously ill or injured, gets together at the Counseling Center to share their stories, exchange advice, and discuss each other’s experiences with this difficult situation. Most come every week, although each member is free to come as frequently or infrequently as they like. The group is called “Home Base,” and all meetings are attended by a counselor/facilitator who stays with the group throughout the school year.

Spiritually

Campus Ministry, in the bottom floor of Cohn Hall (410-617- 2222), has spiritual advisors who are happy to meet with you to discuss spiritual dimensions and the role of your faith in your situation.

What are Other Ways to Cope?

Each of us has an individual style of coping with painful times. The list below may help you generate ideas about how to manage your feelings. You may want to experiment with these ideas or create a list of your own. Only you know what coping skills will fit best with your personality and lifestyle.

One way to examine your own style of coping is to recall the ways you've dealt with painful times in the past. It's important to note that some ways of coping with grief are helpful, like talking to others, writing in a journal, and so forth. Others may be hurtful or destructive, like substance abuse or isolation. It is important to develop healthy coping skills for facing life’s hardships. 

  • Talk to family or friends
  • Read poetry or books
  • Engage in social activities
  • Write in a journal, especially about what’s difficult
  • Eat good foods
  • Exercise
  • Take time to relax
  • Listen to music
  • Let yourself feel whatever you are feeling
  • Be patient with yourself

HOW CAN YOU SUPPORT A FRIEND IN THIS SITUATION?

  • Say something; don’t just ignore their situation
  • Ask how they’re doing
  • Ask about their loved one
  • Be a good listener
  • Ask about their feelings
  • Just sit with them
  • Share your feelings
  • Let them feel sad and scared—don’t try to “just be positive”
  • Remember to check back; don’t just ask once and then forget it
  • Be available when you can
  • Consider recommending other supports, like the Counseling Center

People who are facing a possible loss often feel isolated or lonely in their grief and fear. Well-meaning friends may avoid discussing the subject due to their own discomfort or their fear of "making the person feel bad." They may feel they “don’t know what to say."

Showing concern about a friend shows that you care. It's better to feel nervous and awkward sitting with your friend than not to sit there at all. 

How Flexible Are You?