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The Waiting Game


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The Waiting Game: Limbo and Terminal Illness

by Deb Sims, MS,RNCS,LCSW


There is a period of time of waiting that always happens when someone is about to be diagnosed or waiting the results of a test or the outcome of an intervention. We call this being in a state of limbo. You suspect something is wrong but you don't have any answers. You're just waiting. You are wondering is this a gain or is this a loss and how bad? The feeling of being "in limbo" is itself a loss. You have no control at that time. For some people the feeling of not knowing is the worse torture of all. During this period nothing can be done. You can't start grieving. You can't start treatment. You can't work on preparing for the future because you have no direction to go in. What are the signs of being in a limbo state? They are very much like being in a state of loss. Both family members and the person suffering will experience these signs.

  • Feeling helpless, fearful, worrying all the time, empty, irritable, angry, restless, pessimistic, sometimes hopeless and guilty
  • Experiencing a loss of concentration, interest, motivation and fatigue
  • Changes in appetite, sleep patterns or sexual drive
  • A tendency to have less energy and make more mistakes because of decreased concentration or movement

Aren't these also signs of depression? Yes. The difference is the degree of incapacitation and the length of time. With limbo, eventually an answer will come. Then a direction can be chosen to go in. Movement or action eases the symptoms because something at least is being done. If these symptoms last beyond two weeks and are incapacitating to the point that they interfere with daily functioning, it is time to suspect Clinical Depression. This is especially true if suicidal feelings are present also. Then it is time to talk with a professional (a therapist or physician) about getting help for the symptoms. We'll refer more to how to treat Clinical Depression in another article. Aren't these symptoms the same as grief symptoms? Grief is not an illness but a normal life event and reaction to loss. However, the duration of time, intensity, circumstances of the loss and the person's own ability to understand what is going on, determines how they will handle it. Some people need to seek the help of a grief counselor immediately, a support group, web site for education, or a physician. Most of us understand that a limbo state will have an end. We will have an answer. Eventually, there will also be an easing of the grief process down the road. This may though take quite a while. The intensity of symptoms or the development of clinical depression determines the need for therapeutic intervention.

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