Embracing the Journey

Life-Threatening Illness Can Offer Opportunities

As we age, many of us struggle with a variety of illnesses, including some that prove to be life threatening or even lethal. The Brandywine Region (in Delaware and part of Pennsylvania, USA) has recently experienced several major illnesses and losses.

We lost a much beloved elder who had been ill for some time and was of an advanced age. People were sad but not surprised. More unanticipated and difficult was when two women in their early sixties were suddenly and simultaneously afflicted with brain cancer and ovarian cancer respectively. Both of them died within two years of their diagnoses.

One of the women was my RC teacher and the other was in our class, so I experienced first-hand the wonderful way a highly functioning RC Community can organize a network of support. Support groups were convened for each of the women. Weekly calendars were filled in with people’s availability to do one-way time. The two women always had a say in how much time they could use and how they wanted to be contacted. They also received plenty of discharge time in class whenever they were able to attend.

I was an active member of both support groups, and being with these remarkable women, giving them attention, and receiving it from them when they wanted to reciprocate were powerful and moving experiences.

Some members of our Community felt that the Community (or class) was spending too much resource on these individuals and that supporting them was an unfair redistribution of limited resources. It’s important to stress that in established Communities like ours in which people have worked together for many years, these kinds of support teams are rooted in deep, loving existing relationships. The support is never mandated, and newer members of the Community are never pressured to participate. For the Co-Counselors who participate, it should be an opportunity to reach for and discharge old feelings of grief, anger, and powerlessness.

I myself was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March of 2017. The treatments, which have been ongoing since May, have not impacted my attention. I have been able to lead my Jewish support group and think well about the many people around me who are affected by my illness, including, of course, my immediate family.

My Co-Counselors have a lot of feelings—fear, anger, curiosity, shyness, and so on—about my having cancer, and some of them find it hard to counsel about me with me. Some of that is good RC training to stay away from topics that may restimulate one’s counselor. But when I give permission (I am generally clear that their feelings have old roots), the sessions can be powerful.

Many of us learned as children that we could not be upset when our parents were ill or upset. They could not handle our feelings, so we learned to protect them by not showing our feelings. This came at a large cost. We internalized the misinformation that our feelings could hurt others. Counseling on not hurting a sick Co-Counselor with our feelings can unlock a treasury of ancient suppressed hurts.

It is standard practice for Co-Counselors who are supporting a sick person to take frequent sessions with teammates on their feelings about the person, to help them be fully present for him or her. Many of these sessions seem to get down to the ancient powerlessness most of us struggle with. Indeed, supporting a person with cancer may be one of the best ways to access those feelings.

One of the first reactions people have when I tell them of my illness is to eagerly offer help and support. “What can I do to help?” is probably the most frequent question. I think this points in part to feelings of powerlessness and wanting to contradict them by doing something. Co-Counselors have the opportunity to discharge the feelings and reclaim their full power to act in the world.

While I struggle with not wanting to be a burden on my family or Community, I am comforted by knowing that rather than taking resource away from the Community, supporting an ill Co-Counselor can encourage people to take more frequent sessions and discharge old feelings of powerlessness, which can move everyone forward.

Danielle Rice

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

(Present Time 190, January 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00