"Six months ago, the doctor told us that our 4-year-old daughter might die before morning," recalls Janey, 27, the mother of three, who's been married to Greg for six years. "But lTC then a miracle occurred: Mary was granted another remission -- her third since she was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 19 months old." Though Janey and Greg are both grateful and hopeful, the past few years have been very hard on their marriage, as well as on their two other children. But while Janey yearns to re-establish the closeness they used to have, Greg seems more distant than ever.
During the terrible weeks of Mary's last hospitalization and chemotherapy, she recalls, Greg was hardly ever around. Though he visited the hospital regularly, he never stayed long. Even worse, when Janey needed to talk about how scared and overwhelmed she was -- especially how the other children were starting to act up at home -- Greg either froze up or tuned her out.
Often, he told her he had to travel for business -- Greg works for a large chemical manufacturing corporation and, while traveling was always a part of his job, just at the time when Janey needed him most, he suddenly had an inordinate amount of out-of-state business to attend to.
Janey is puzzled, hurt and angry: "Every time I've even hinted that perhaps he could at least spend more time with the other children, he flies into a rage just like my mother did." The least trifle turned her mother into a madwoman, Janey explains, and now she finds herself trying not to provoke Greg in much the same way she tiptoed around her mother.
Greg, 30, has always had trouble finding the right words to express how he feels, and he's particularly defensive and nervous now. "Janey doesn't understand," he keeps repeating, like a broken record. "I love her, and I love all my children. Maybe I don't show it like she does, but why does she have to pass judgment on me? Why can't she see how much pain I'm going through, too?"
Greg is resentful and discouraged. "I don't understand how talking to a professional counselor is going to be much help," he snaps.
Most couples will never have to deal with the nightmare that Janey and Greg are living through. However, many will have to face a chronic or serious illness or other trauma. It's essential to remember that the whole family is affected by such a crisis. "Families must learn to work together in the face of the change and adjustment that are often required in the aftermath of such a blow," notes Jane Greer, a marriage counselor in New York and Douglaston, N.Y. "Many times, there is so much pain involved that, like Greg, people simply can't deal with it, and they avoid it."
However, increasing numbers of mental health professionals are focusing their attention on helping patients and their loved ones learn to talk openly with one another about the illness they are facing, deal with their anger and uncertainty, and look for ways to help all family members carry on with their lives. For information on medical family therapists, contact the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (1100 17th St., N.W., 10th Floor, Washington D.C. 20036;  374-2638).
In the meantime, accept the fact that a sick child or other health crisis inevitably monopolizes your family's time and attention, and it can be difficult to keep a marriage strong. The following advice can help:
* Vent your feelings. Crises leave us feeling hurt, discouraged and threatened, and it's essential to express those feelings before you can think clearly and rationally about the situation. If .. you have to rant and rave, cry or scream, go ahead. Or try writing your feelings in a journal.
* Think positively. Like Greg, many people discover that their initial response to a crisis is anger and denial. However, trauma can also spur personal growth and honest soul-searching that can help you rebuild your lives.
* Don't pass judgment on your partner's way of coping. It's rare for husbands and wives to react the exact same way to a child's illness. By its very nature, trauma interrupts our lives, and we all have different ways of coping. Janey needs to talk, but Greg needs to stay focused on his work. Many husbands, especially if they are the primary breadwinner, respond the same way. It's important for Janey to understand that her response is not better than Greg's; it's simply different.
* Remember the other "victims." When a child is ill, it's natural for parents to be so preoccupied with her recovery that they unwittingly neglect their other children. But you can't put one child's emotions on hold while you attend totally to the sick sibling. Understand that the other children will be angry, scared and resentful of the attention their sick brother or sister is getting.
Expect some regression into childish behavior: Psychosomatic illnesses, bed-wetting, poor performance in school, aggressive, argumentative, even hostile actions or comments are common. Resolve to keep everyone's activities and schedules as normal as possible. Reach out to other family members and friends for support and help. Praise accomplishments and set aside time to talk one-on-one and to let the other children talk about their feelings.