by Nancy Stout
Two months ago, my husband had a heart attack—six years after first hearing he had heart disease. Tom’s first question in the ambulance ride to the hospital was, “Am I going to live through this?” That’s a big one! Others followed: “How will this change my lifestyle? What do I need to learn about heart disease? Who’s going to cover for me at work?”
Illness brings uncertainty, questions, and concerns that cause anxiety. A whole person, a whole life, is affected. Just when these questions beg for attention, your body needs you to devote all your energy to healing.
Working Your Way Through
These tough questions don’t have easy answers. Here are responses to some common concerns during illness. Maybe they’ll alleviate some of your anxiety as you focus on regaining optimum health and well-being.
Who will help out while I am ill?
You wonder who’ll take care of the children, your duties at work and at home. Often we think we are indispensable.
Now is the time to involve family, friends, and even professional assistants to handle these responsibilities. Churches and other religious communities often have volunteers willing to house- or pet-sit, do shopping and errands, and provide meals and even transportation. Professional care is available through social service agencies, hospitals, or care centers.
Communicate with your place of work. Know your health benefits and your rights regarding sick leave. Delegate to coworkers whenever possible. You’ll be surprised at how many people will step in with offers to help.
How will this illness change my life-style?
One of the most important things you can do for yourself and your loved ones is to gather information and educate yourself about the illness, expectations for return to health, and the changes that come with chronic illness. Sometimes we’re forced to give up our work as we’ve defined it. After my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis years ago, I retired because of the complications and limitations of the disease.
What do I do with the pain that may come?
Modern medicine offers countless methods of pain control in the form of medications, procedures, relaxation techniques, and alternative therapies. All can be tailored to individual circumstances. Find out what you can do to best relieve your type of pain. Sometimes if the pain is not too intense, simple distractions are enough to bring some relief, like listening to soothing music, doing some quiet reading, or looking at a favorite picture.
Pain can offer opportunities for spiritual growth as it opens up the deep questions about suffering we all experience in life. Pain teaches. Sometimes flowing with it instead of resisting is the better method of responding.
Where do I get the strength and courage to persevere?
Let me suggest you look at the sources that build the same perseverance through any challenge of daily living. What or who gets you through when things get tough?
Perhaps one person closest to you—a spouse, significant other, or friend—is the source of strength and support you need while you’re ill. Confide in him or her and spend time together, even if it’s just sitting in silence.
Depend on your spiritual disciplines and support. Continue to pray, even if you can only cry out to God in your distress, “Help me!” Talk to your spiritual guides as well. For me, meditating on the belief that my God suffers with me brings much solace.
Do I have to give up my independence?
When illness comes, sometimes our ability to care for basic needs is compromised. You may wonder how much help you’ll need and how you can ask for that help.
Many of us are afraid of needing help. We’re afraid we’ll be alone or turned down when we ask, afraid to inconvenience someone. A friend shared with me recently that his mom was missing medical appointments because she hesitated to ask a neighbor or friend to drive her.
After Tom’s heart attack, he discovered some of that dependence. It was just a short two weeks before he was driving, but that meant I was responsible for those extra trips out. I rolled the trashcan out to the curb, and I made that extra trip up the stairs. It was hard for us—mainly because I usually depended on him for those things, given my own limited stamina and strength.
Receiving can be hard. But God calls us to give and receive. Allow someone to give to you in your need. Learn interdependence, the cycle of caring for each other.
What can I do with the anger and depression I feel?
Anger and depression are normal responses during illness, especially serious, long-term, or debilitating illness. It’s easy to get “stuck” in these feelings. But energy consumed by your anger and depression leaves less energy for healing.
Find a way to express the feelings you have. Cry, but not alone. Journaling is helpful in getting the feelings out and letting them go. You need to move through these feelings, not ignore or suppress them, but acknowledge and honor them, and keep moving.
How do I confront my mortality and vulnerability?
Illness brings some big questions before us. You realize you’re not immortal, and you think about dying some day. You question the boundaries of your abilities. You examine your self-image and wonder if you’re still the same “you” in your weakness. Illness also triggers the “why” questions: Why me? Why this? Why now?
Go ahead and ask these questions! In prayer to your Higher Power or God, in meditation or journaling, or just sitting in a grove of old trees—ask the questions. Ponder them. You know in your head there won’t be any clear answers, but your heart needs to reflect and to wonder about these universal questions.
How do I tell others I am ill?
If your illness is brief and has a positive outcome, this question probably won’t arise. But if your illness is more serious and long-term, with an uncertain outcome, this question becomes more pressing.
It’s hard to share a weakness or a condition we believe “diminishes” us in some way. I felt this intensely in the early days of my MS diagnosis. I’m learning it takes less energy to be honest and to trust that people around me want to be supportive. Take a chance and share the truth. It gets easier after the first time. The sharing is important; keeping things “secret” isolates you.
Where is God in my illness?
In a novel I read recently, a boy asked his grandfather about the scripture passage where Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive.” The boy couldn’t grasp the meaning. He knew occasions when he asked—for Granny not to die, for a special gift at Christmas—and his requests were not granted. The grandfather explained his belief that Jesus was talking about something other than asking for “things” and particular “outcomes.” Jesus was talking about presence. Ask and you will feel God’s love and care.
God is with you in your pain and suffering. God will hear you when you pray. God reaches out through other people who love, support, and care for you in your illness. God is with you in the rituals and prayers of your religious tradition.
Can I learn from this experience of illness?
If we can find meaning, we can endure just about anything. But illness often provides a unique opportunity for growth and for learning about yourself. It can help you to identify the priorities in your life, the gifts and blessings that are yours each day, and the strength and courage that lie deep within you.
Often a serious illness uncovers a true compassion for others that you didn’t recognize before. When your own vulnerability has been exposed, you become able to identify with others who are weakened in body, mind, or spirit. There is a clearer understanding of what it means to face limitations, and even one’s mortality.
My husband and I witness to this fact together since his heart attack. He now knows what I’ve tried to explain to him over the past 5 years about my fears and grief over losses and limitations that have come with my illness. He’s listening in a new way, because he feels some of these same fears and grief in his health situation. And my belief is confirmed again: Everything that happens in life is an opportunity for stretching our hearts and minds.
Nancy Stout is a freelance author for CareNotes. Her first book, The Joy of Being a Bereavement Minister, was published by Resurrection Press.
Vulnerability is the call to self-acceptance. It is the great liberating moment on the human journey.
“We can talk through our fear and look at our anger when someone we love is ill. Fear is understandable; anger is forgivable.”
Meditations for Health