People are instinctual problem-solvers. When we hear that someone we know is facing a hardship, we want to solve it, partly out of genuine care for the other person, and partly because most people just can’t stand the idea of an unsolved problem. When the problem is a chronic health condition such as diabetes, however, all sorts of short circuits can occur in our problem-solving brains: “What do you mean there’s no cure? Have you tried…?”
For those who must live day to day with diabetes, the phase of searching for magic bullets may last for a while, but eventually acceptance must set in if life is to have any sense of normalcy again. Adjusting to any difficult situation tends to follow this same trajectory, with feelings of denial and resistance giving way to feelings of acceptance and making peace with the situation.
Conflict can arise, however, when friends, family members, and other acquaintances are at a stage of needing to solve a loved one’s diabetes, while the person who has the diabetes is at a stage of accepting and learning to live with the condition. Such conflict can be annoying and even downright infuriating at times, both for those who want to help, and for those on the receiving end of unsolicited advice and solutions.
This can’t be right!
The first stage of adjusting to bad news (and a diagnosis of diabetes is certainly a piece of bad news) is often denial. There is a feeling of disbelief, disconnect, and unreality. That initial feeling was summed up quite simply and quite eloquently by a parent I talked to a while ago. She recalled the moment when her son was given a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes following a routine checkup. “I had this feeling of disbelief, and my first thought was to ask to see the script,” she said. “In my own head, the doctor was simply wrong. We weren’t supposed to get diabetes. Someone had just made an error in the script.”
For this family, the initial stage of denial was followed by a relatively quick shift into acceptance as they learned about insulin, meal-planning, blood glucose monitoring, and all the other changes that come along with a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis. “Of course there were challenges, and of course we felt upset, angry, sad, and all of that,” she said, “but we understood quickly that denial wasn’t going to be helpful in the long run.”
Not all families make this adjustment as quickly, however. And when the family holds on to intense denial or resistance while the individual with diabetes is attempting to learn how to live with the condition, conflict can erupt. I recently spoke with Jennifer, a mother of a three-year-old daughter recently diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Jennifer and her daughter come from a very close, very caring, and very religious family. Jennifer held the same values as her family, and she explained that her faith had been a strong sustaining factor for her and her husband as they faced their daughter’s diagnosis. However, her own faith and her extended family’s faith were pulling in opposing directions.
Jennifer’s family remained steadfast in their conviction that her daughter’s diabetes could be “defeated” through prayer. Day after day, week after week, her family continued to insist that with enough prayer, enough faith, and enough persistence, God would remove diabetes from her daughter’s life. Jennifer said that she felt almost “torn in two” trying to balance her and her daughter’s need to accept the reality of what was going on, while constantly hearing members of her family insist that “God will take it away.” Her own faith remained quite strong, and she did use prayer. However, she used it to move toward acceptance, while her family continued to resist the diabetes diagnosis.