Coronavirus and cancer: feeling isolated from friends and family

Thursday 03 December 2020

Claire Marriott, psychologist and Centre Head at Maggie's Oxford writes about feeling isolated from friends and family during the coronavirus pandemic and shares some ideas on how to make things more manageable.

If you are diagnosed with cancer, you will usually share the news with your family, who will support you through the experience.

Even families who do not live nearby will often do everything they can to come and help.

And ‘family’ in this sense doesn’t just mean those you are related to; it can be a wider network of friends, blended families and whoever else is important in your life. 

If you are going through cancer during the coronavirus pandemic, the family support that you rely on and benefit from has been at best, compromised. But for many it’s impossible.

You may have been told to shield and avoid contact with relatives and friends. The very contact that is nourishing and restorative has been presented as something to be feared and avoided. 

For many people, the isolation this has lead to has felt unbearable. 

Feeling sad is normal

It’s normal to feel sad, almost a sense of grieving, at being separated from loved ones.

The feelings will probably come and go in waves. Try to be kind to yourself. Focus on what you can control right now, and try not to think too much about what has changed.

Make the most of any opportunities to connect with others and be open about new ways to do this. 

Psychologists often talk about psychological flexibility and how it can help us.

If we can be open-minded and accepting about the situation we’re in, and focus on how we can adapt to it, we’ll usually feel a bit better about it.  

What you can do

Everything feels very uncertain and it’s hard to make firm plans just now. So, it can be helpful to create your own certainties where possible. For example:  

  • Within your own household create a routine for chores and tasks – so that everyone knows what they are doing and when. Even if you live alone it can be helpful to plan like this.
  • Decide which areas of the house you are all going to use and when – so that there are times and places for work and play. Again a good idea even if you live alone, especially if you are working from home. 
  • Stay connected with your wider family. Decide on a time when you will call grandparents or other family members. It gives everyone something to look forward to, and it provides a moment of predictability in the day.
  • Talk and listen. Ask each other what was difficult today and what you are grateful for.  
  • Make some time to get outside, even if it’s a bit cold and rainy. We all usually feel better if we have spent time in the fresh air and done a bit of exercise.
  • You can also come into Maggie’s for support or call or email us. Find your nearest Maggie's for contact details.


Families with children 

Here at Maggie’s we’ve seen how difficult it has become for families with young children where childcare routines have been disrupted.

Parents who often rely on the wider family have lost practical help and support, and children have lost a really important emotional connection with aunts, uncles and grandparents.

Both sides benefit from this contact and both sides feel the loss when it’s removed. At a time when people need help the most and want to offer it the most, it has been restricted and prevented.  

Many people who visit our centres have talked about feelings of sadness, worry, anger, abandonment and hopelessness, with an intense feeling of loss and longing for those they are missing.  

Grandparents who are bereaved or living alone may feel especially isolated and alone when they can’t see their grandchildren, especially if they are also retired and lacking the structure of routine and contact with work colleagues.

Children may struggle to understand why their routine has changed and why they can't see those they love and enjoy spending time with. If they were already trying to accept that their parent has cancer, another change in their life may affect their mood and behaviour.


Find fun ways for children to connect online

There are lots of ways to connect online to ensure that the relationship between children and their wider family can carry on.

Play a game
Children may not have a long attention span when it comes to chatting online, but they will probably be happy to play a game and many traditional ones can easily be played over Zoom.

We might all have to practice virtual charades ready for Christmas!

Watch TV together
You could watch the same film or TV programme at the same time – you will be able to share the experience even if you are not physically together.

When you next catch up you can talk about it, discuss your favourite lines and characters. This way you can create special shared memories and feel that sense of togetherness.

Read a bedtime story 
Children love their bedtime stories and relatives can still stay involved by reading to them each night on Zoom.  

How Maggie's can support you

At the moment we can support you and your family face-to-face in a centre, over the phone or via email.

Get in touch with your nearest centre to arrange to speak to one of our Cancer Support Specialists.

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