Is your ambiguity making you ambivalent?

 In Advice, Patient & Family Stories

Are you ambivalent?

Most likely, your answer to this question is YES. There are certain subjects, events, and even people that can cause this feeling to rise up within us. I imagine a definition of ambivalent would be helpful. This is one of those words that can be misunderstood.

Ambivalence: 1) Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action. 2a.) continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite). 2b)  Uncertainty as to which approach to follow.

When people are at a crossroads or think they are at a crossroads, ambivalent feelings can burst like a volcano onto the scene. “Should we or shouldn’t we?”  “I like him and I hate him.” Order can quickly fall into chaos as individuals and families are suddenly struggling with their feelings and direction for the future.  Some people will begin to vacillate like AC current, while others commit to an about-face.

I remember when my mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2012 and felt torn between aggressive care and hospice care for her. Which choice should she make? I felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as I vacillated in my thoughts between aggressive care and hospice. Was the stress bringing on a psychotic event for me? No, I was experiencing ambivalence.

Ambivalent feeling can be so disruptive.   Families experience chaos when ambivalence shows up. Members of a family who were all in agreement with a plan and course of action for their loved one suddenly switch sides, directions, and alliances. Why would they change their mind, alter their goals, switch allegiances, and go against their loved one’s wishes? Ambivalence.

Crossroads will do this. When people feel uncertainty and when they haven’t sorted out their feelings and goals, ambivalence can burst onto the scene. But could there also be something else at play? Yes!


Ambiguity means “unclear or capable of being understood in two or more different ways.”

I remember very clearly when my mom first found that lump. First evaluations were, “It’s probably just a cyst or a benign tumor.”

But when it grew from the size of a small lime to that of a grapefruit in just one month the doctors weren’t talking about a cyst or a benign tumor any longer. Cancer was now gently being mentioned as a possibility.

But we won’t know for sure till we do further testing...”

Immediately after mastectomy, the surgeon assured our family.

 “I got it all, there’s nothing to worry about. She’ll be fine.”

But when the pathology reports came back a week later, my mother’s next appointment was with the oncologist. And the pathology report was not good. The oncologist’s words are still indelibly etched on our minds.

I’m sorry. You have incurable cancer and it’s exceedingly aggressive and has already spread… At best you have 4 months to live.”

My mother’s journey is fairly typical. Families tell me their journey has also been a white- knuckle roller-coaster ride, filled with sharp turns and quick drops. As a patient and family reflects on all the messaging they’ve received, they often liken it to an echo chamber of chattering voices with confusing and contradictory messages. Mind you, this is all mixed with their emotions and the stages of grief. It is no wonder patients and families are overwhelmed with a sense of ambiguity.  For many, the messaging has been all over the map.

Hind sight can often be 20/20. After years of reflection, I understand how my ambivalence was also affected by the ambiguity. All the mixed messages and my fears led me to feelings of ambivalence. These were the thoughts I had at the time:

  • Should my mother have another consultation?
  • Maybe the doctors are wrong. They are just ‘practicing medicine’.
  • Maybe chemo and radiation will put this cancer into remission?
  • How can they be so sure! My mother’s tough, she’s a fighter, she often wins against the odds.
  • Why make her suffer? Shouldn’t we be looking at hospice for her?
  • Hasn’t she been through enough? 
  • She’s approaching 80 years old and is content with her life and accomplishments.
  • Is this for you, Brian, or for her?

I trust my personal experience will help you in yours. Understanding our choices and feelings, and the messaging we are receiving, will help us to make the right decisions.

In the end, the oncologists were correct. My mother died four months after being diagnosed. Two months after the diagnosis, we enrolled her into hospice and they did a great job managing her pain and keeping her comfortable until she died.

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