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How to Support a Spouse or Partner During Cancer Treatment by “Holding Space”

Marika Humphreys is a life coach certified by The Life Coach School who coaches people who have a partner with cancer. Marika was a caregiver to her late husband for 5 years as he battled multiple cancers. Coaching has had a profound impact on Marika’s life. Through coaching, she discovered her own strength and resilience, and now she helps her clients do the same. You can find her on Facebook.

If you have a loved one with cancer, you know that one of the most difficult parts of the experience is having to see them in pain. Unfortunately, many cancer treatments cause side effects, such as nausea, exhaustion, and bloating, among others. As a caregiver, it can be heart-wrenching to see your loved one suffer and feel powerless to help them.

When my husband was suffering with the aftereffects of a really strong dose of chemotherapy, I dreaded seeing him. He looked so miserable. I just wanted to fix his pain and make him feel better. I was often asking him, “What can I do? What can I get you?” So often, there was nothing I could do, and it broke my heart. Both of us ended up suffering, him physically and me emotionally.

When I became a life coach, I learned a powerful technique called “holding space.” Holding space means letting a person be fully in their emotion without trying to fix it for them or make them feel better. You let that person express themselves without fear of judgment and without having to worry about how they are coming across. It’s like creating a protective bubble around the person for the thoughts and feelings they are having in the moment.

For example, there was an evening my husband had a strange pain. I got worried and busied myself by asking him questions, such as, “What should I do? Do you want me to call the doctor?” He said, “Marika, just love me.”

Then it hit me. He needed me to hold space for his pain and just love him and be with him. It was a powerful experience for me. This was something I could do. I could be present with him and love him.

How learning to hold space can help you better support your partner

When your loved one is in pain, or angry, or frustrated, or going through any of the other complex emotions that come with cancer, I learned that you don’t have to try to fix them or make them feel better. Often, you won’t be able to, as it simply may not be within your control. When you try to fix them or make them feel better but don’t succeed, you will only feel frustrated and powerless yourself, and your loved one will still be suffering.

Instead, I’ve learned that you can hold space for their pain. You can create that safe bubble for them just to fully be in the moment of whatever they are experiencing and feeling. You can be present and listen without judgment and without trying to fix any of it. Remind yourself that you don’t need to fix anything or try to take away their pain. That is not your job. But you can hold space for them with love. You can be present for this experience in their life journey.

Holding space for your loved one can be powerful for both of you. Sometimes, we don’t want someone to fix us or make things better. Sometimes, we just want to be heard and have our pain and emotions acknowledged. We just want the comforting presence of someone who loves us without judgment. For you as the caregiver, holding space will give you permission to just be present for your loved one. You can let go of feeling responsible for controlling or fixing something that is not within your control. Instead, you can give your love and be present. You can be a comforting witness to the struggle they are in. This is something you can do for your partner and for yourself.

Holding space does not mean you don’t attend to your loved one’s needs, such as getting their pain medication or trying to make them more comfortable. What it means is that when there is nothing else to be done, then it’s time to just hold space. You can do this if they are in pain, if they are yelling at the top of their lungs with frustration or anger, and even if they are despondent or grumpy. These are all human emotions that need to be expressed. When we are too quick to want to fix someone’s bad feelings, we are not first validating them. When your loved one is able to fully express what they are going through and feel heard and validated, it will help them process their own emotions and experience.

The next time your loved one is in pain, either physical or emotional, first take care of any immediate needs. Then, try holding space. Let them safely express what they are going through while you stand as a loving witness. Hear them and echo their thoughts and emotions. Let them feel heard and acknowledged. Take heart knowing this is 1 way you can support them through their cancer experience.

The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose. 

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