Meredith Vieira and Richard Cohen have shared their marriage with multiple sclerosis for 25 years. Richard now is legally blind and has trouble walking. He was diagnosed at age 25, before they met. He told her on their second date. [Margaret Guroff, AARP The Magazine, Dec. 2011-Jan. 2012]
I got to thinking what a hard conversation it is to tell someone you love that you – or they – have an incurable, debilitating, and eventually fatal illness. Yet every year thousands of parents and children, husbands and wives must have these conversations. Right now I have a half-dozen friends with cancer or Alzheimer’s, or spouses who have it. Talking about it , even — no, especially — with those you love most, is very, very tough.
I offer these thoughts (some from this lovely couple, some from me) not as a “what to say” formula but rather some ways to be, out of which the right words will flow.
1. Cohen says he’s helped by both realism and denial. Realism about the present moment – what he still can do and enjoy, what accommodations he must make – and refusal to dwell on the future. Vieira says, “The future could be a bus hitting us tomorrow.” Reminds me of Scarlet O’Hara’s mantra, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
2. Remember that you are not your disease. Make necessary allowances for it, but don’t let it define your life together.
3. If you can do it honestly, remind one another that you’re in it together for the long haul. Reassure your parent, child, spouse, “I’ll be here for you.” Our greatest fear is not suffering, it’s suffering alone.
4. Laugh. Have fun together. Take a cruise, share music and poetry, see good movies. Touch each other tenderly – a foot massage or a back rub can say more than words.
5. Express gratitude. Remember what you love about the other and tell them. Again and again.
For more, see See http://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/info-11-2011/vieira.html. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this tough topic.