Experiencing The Big Sick: How to cope during a medical emergency

The Big Sick (released June 23, 2017) tells the story of Kumail Nunjiani (played by himself) and Emily V. Gordon in the first year of their real-life relationship.

It seems like a typical romantic comedy until Emily falls into a coma. Fortunately, as Kumail explains to Emily’s distraught parents, it’s a medically induced coma “which is like one of the better types of comas; although ideally no coma is best.” What follows is a surprisingly nuanced and emotional (yet somehow still hilarious) depiction of Kumail, Emily’s parents, and Emily (when, spoiler, she comes out of the coma) attempting to deal with a severe medical emergency. Having such a serious medical emergency happen to a loved one is of course difficult to manage, and The Big Sick shows the toll that it takes on all those involved. One scene shows Kumail coping by “stress eating” with Emily’s mother. Such a coping mechanism may be beneficial in certain, very rare scenarios, as it serves both to help Kumail bond with his future mother-in-law while simultaneously relieving some of their stress. However, as the coma lasts longer than expected, stress eating becomes a less successful tactic, since it only puts off confronting the stress and fear. The Big Sick shows this failure as Kumail loses his temper when a fast food restaurant doesn’t get his order correct. Interestingly, this serves as a valuable experience for Kumail, as his explosion at the restaurant helps him realize the depth of his feelings and affords him the clarity of thought to make some important decisions he had been putting off in his own life.

It is unlikely that many of us will have an epiphany such as this while in the drive through waiting for an obscene amount of burgers and fries. However, engaging in a positive coping mechanism may help to relieve your stress and help you better manage the current situation:

  1. Reach out to your support system. It can be helpful to reach out to a family member or close friend for help. In some circumstances it can be helpful to appoint this family member or friend as the point person for communication with other family or to help run the household as you focus your energy and attention on your loved one.
  2. Seek spiritual counseling. If you are religious it may be helpful to reach out to your pastor/priest/bishop. Churches usually have a strong community of members who are willing to serve you during a difficult time. Also, most hospitals have pastoral care services that will meet you at bedside.
  3. Be accepting of your thoughts and feelings. It is normal to feel angry, depressed, or hopeless when a loved one has a new medical diagnosis. Please know that these feelings are normal. In many emergency situations we may say the wrong thing or make the wrong decision. Do not hold this against yourself. You are doing the best you can.
  4. Seek professional help. Hospital doctors, nurses, and social workers are there to help you through the care and treatment of your loved one. Voice your concerns and ask for help or clarification when needed.
  5. In some circumstances it may be beneficial to seek out professional help from a therapist. Therapy does not have to last years, sometimes it can be useful for 2 to 4 sessions in order to help manage a crisis.

Final take-a-way: there are no easy solutions to dealing with the illness of a loved one. So don’t judge yourself or others too harshly for doing things like making inappropriate jokes or stress eating, but remember that such tactics eventually won’t solve anything. And even when the immediate danger is gone, there will be some lingering difficulties in its wake, such as negative feelings and actions. Work through the negativity as best you can and seek help when you can’t do it on your own.

How have you dealt with a loved one’s illness? Let me know in the comments below.

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