“I break the rules sometimes,” Mrs. Wilkinson confessed, choking back tears. “‘Just put on some clean clothes and lie down next to me,’” she said she tells her children when she can no longer bear being several feet away.
To seek help for the Wilkinsons, and the rest of us, I turned to authorities on how to cope with social distancing: therapists who advise cancer patients and their families, including during treatments like stem-cell transplants, which can involve prolonged isolation and other measures to guard against infection.
Ian Sadler, a psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center, gently dismissed Meagan Wilkinson’s fear that she would damage her mother by not hugging her. Distancing can be an act of care, he said. A lack of embrace is now an embrace.
Allison Applebaum, a psychologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, worried about the burden on the Wilkinson children. Maintaining complete distance and cleanliness, monitoring contact and food, is “an enormous source of anxiety,” she said, for them and now everyone else. “You can’t do it perfectly a hundred percent of the time.” Note to everyone who is wiping, washing and Clorox-ing these days: in some cancer caregivers, the responsibility of constantly trying to eliminate germs contributes to post-traumatic stress symptoms, she said.
To find a substitute for cuddling, Dr. Applebaum suggested an exercise she does with her patients. If a father longs to play ball outside with his son, she asks him: “What was it about playing ball in the backyard that was meaningful? Was it about the ball, or was it connecting with him?” The goal is to find an alternate activity that delivers similar satisfaction.
Some of her current patients have only a few months to live and, because of the virus, are now being forced to cancel final-wish, bucket-list trips they had planned to take this spring. She asks them: “What is it about going to Paris that’s so special? Is it the physical act of getting on the plane, or is it a memory you wanted to recreate in Paris?”