Introducing Emotional First Aid by Dr. Jamie Aten


hero symbol

We are pleased to introduce Emotional First Aid, a new reoccurring blog by Jamie Aten, Ph.D. (counseling psychology). He is a disaster psychologist, author, and speaker. He doesn’t just study disasters, he’s lived disasters as a Hurricane Katrina survivor and early-age onset stage IV colorectal cancer survivor (now almost 5 years no evidence of disease).

Emotional First Aid posts will share insights from his personal survivorship experiences and psychosocial research he’s conducted around the globe to help readers diagnosed with cancer and cancer caregivers cultivate resilience and cope with fortitude.

A Letter to Cancer Caregivers During Mental Health Month

What your loved one with cancer wish you knew about helping.

Dear Caregiver,

I recently returned from training helpers in Alaska on how to provide emotional support to others in their community affected by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that occurred there on November 30, 2018. I want to share something that helped the caregivers I met in Alaska that will also help you in caring for your loved one’s psychosocial needs in the aftershock of cancer.

Though it has been several months since the earthquake struck, its impact continues to linger because of the almost daily aftershocks that have followed. The survivors I met described how the littlest thing could trigger psychological distress, reminding them of the emotional hurts that were caused by the disaster. Many of the helpers I met also shared how the earthquake had left them feeling helpless and unprepared to provide care.

Through my research, I’ve discovered that most people are actually more equipped to help than they realize in the aftermath of disaster. Time and time again our team has found that social support is key to helping others navigate life’s disasters—including cancer.

When helping your loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer you don’t have to be a psychologist to make a difference, but you do have to be willing to be present, which starts by listening more and talking less.

Don’t get me wrong.

Your words can help ease distress and even spark hope when they need it the most. However, the truth of the matter is, there are no ‘golden’ words or phrases you can share that will make the pain go away. There’s nothing you can say that will make everything better. That’s why you often feel helpless when you see your loved one with cancer in pain. Because words can’t solve the problem, you may sometimes be prone to freeze up, to say things you normally wouldn’t, and sometimes even sidestep difficult conversations.

Please know it’s okay to make a mistake. There will be times you will put your foot in your mouth. Other times you may fall radio silent, then feel bad because you had withdrawn out fear of what you might say. You are never going to feel fully prepared to help. And there is no magical future “right” date or time when you will see yourself as fully ready.

Your loved one doesn’t need you to be perfect.

You weren’t perfect before your loved one’s diagnosis. The only person expecting you to suddenly be perfect is likely you. Remember what they actually want are people who will show up when needed and truly listen.

Although listening may sound easy, I can tell you it is not.

It can be particularly challenging, especially when you open up to entering into the suffering of what your loved one is experiencing. Here are a few tips that can help make you a better listener:

  • Be willing to listen to the hard stuff. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable when your loved one needs to be able to share or process what it is like to have cancer, but do your best to hang in there.
  • Don’t force your loved one to talk or open up if they aren’t ready to do so. If your loved one isn’t ready to share, be patient, give them time.
  • Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Your loved one needs to be reminded that his or her pain and struggle are legitimate.
  • Be mindful to try and avoid falling into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful. Using clichés that lack substance does more to help relieve your anxiety than it does to help your loved one.
  • Lean into moments of silence when the room seemingly fills with the unbearable weight of quietness. When you find yourself in these sorts of challenging experiences, fight the urge to interject.
  • At other times you may feel uncomfortable by the outpouring of your loved one’s emotions. Offer a calm presence to help your loved one manage difficult emotions.
  • Relate to your loved one through how they are trying to make meaning of what they are going through. If he or she has a different way of looking at things that are different from your observations, try to understand where they are coming from.
  • Know that your loved one may want to talk about anything other than cancer. Sometimes your loved one will need a shoulder to cry on. But there may also be times when you loved might just want to small talk, this could be anything from the weather to the game last night, to the plot of a sitcom.
  • Listen if there are indicators that additional support may be warranted (e.g., signs of depression). Consider if it might be helpful to make a referral to a trusted mental health provider or healthcare provider for professional services. 

Instead of racking your brain for the perfect thing to say, focus instead on listening well. This is one of the best ways you can provide emotional support. Helping your loved one feel heard and understood will speak more deeply than any words you might say.

Do not hesitate to call Fight CRC’s toll-free resource line (1-877-427-2111) to speak directly with a counselor. The line is staffed by licensed mental health professionals and resource specialists from the Cancer Support Community who are experts at providing information and referrals to local, regional and national resources, distress screening, decision-support counselling, and short-term counseling services. The line is available from 9am-9pm Eastern time, and is available in English and Spanish. The line also offers medical translation services in over 200 languages.

Jamie Aten, Ph.D. (counseling psychology) is a Hurricane Katrina and stage IV colorectal cancer survivor. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest book is A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website

One thought on “Introducing Emotional First Aid by Dr. Jamie Aten

  1. This was great. When my husband was initially diagnosed, I felt this was the opportunity for me to be the best I have been since we were married. My husband has since died, and I have all sorts of regrets of what I should have done.

Comments are closed.