Dear Family Advisor

Help! Being a caregiver has warped my fiance's sense of his own mortality.

Last updated: Dec 17, 2009

My fiance and I have been together for eight years "“ and in just the last two, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and his father found out he has colon cancer. Now my fiance is convinced he, too, may die soon "“ an obsession that's changing his personality.

I'm worried for him and don't know how to help him. If I try talking about it, he snaps at me and shuts down. I'm afraid pent-up emotions about his parents have created this anxiety about his own death. How can I help him?

After being surrounded with illness and death, it's not unusual that your fiance is focusing on "the end" a bit too much. It may be a way for him to grieve, and it should subside in time. The good news is, we tend to wear our fears out. We worry, obsess, over-think -- finally exhaust ourselves, and it passes.

In the meantime, it takes a bit of intuition to know what's the right thing to say, the right suggestion to make, or when it's necessary to seek help. Do a lot of listening and encouraging. You're his lifeline, but he has to be willing to hold onto the rope.

One important thing you can do is to help him find a bereavement group. Your fiance needs to be able to talk this out before he chooses to move on, but he may not have the energy to look for an outlet himself. Places of worship, hospitals, community centers, and many hospices run bereavement groups. Look for one facilitated by a moderator trained to help people deal with their grief -- you don't want a group that simply feeds and encourages his current thoughts; you need one that moves toward health.

One of the best antidotes for death is life. Surround the two of you with it. Go to a petting zoo. Visit friends with young children or animals. Plant a garden. After my mother died, I was so down that I knew I had to do something to infuse my family's life with joy and hope. We got a puppy. That may seem crazy considering it's extra work, but it made all the difference in the world to have something to look forward to each day -- the desire to protect, the cuddling, and even the daily commitment of a walk was good for us at a very difficult time. You'll probably have to be the planning committee for your relationship right now, but that's what marriage and partnerships are all about.

Sometimes, after we've tried everything else and given someone a long time to recover, someone in your shoes might also have to say loud and clear, "Snap out of it!" It's a jolt and it may sound heartless, but it's like yelling at someone to stop before they jump off a cliff.

Conversely, be aware of signs of true depression. If he really takes a dip -- can't sleep or sleeps too much (12 hours or more), grows anxious to the point of not being able to function, loses weight or gains weight rapidly, and remedies like activity and the bereavement group don't help -- he may need to talk to a professional counselor who specializes in grief.

The good news is that while your fiancé may be struggling emotionally, everything in us is geared toward staying alive. We eat, we breathe, we form relationships, we work, we make homes for ourselves -- so trust that his natural order will come back and he'll find balance in time.

As a couple you'll experience many celebrations and losses. Your patience, encouragement, and steady love can help him navigate this tough time. He's had some hard blows, and your support can help him find purpose and passion again. Part of the resiliency of a good relationship comes from the struggles you face together.