How Chronic Illness Affects the Family
I’m reading Emily Maurit’s book Two Sisters and a Brain Tumour about her experience watching her sister go through the discovery, surgery, and recovery from a dangerous brain tumor. Emily has written for us before and also spoke with me on our podcast. Those are both worth checking out. And while you are at it, check out Emily’s blog/ministry in support of people with chronically ill loved ones.
Emily’s ministry is unique because it is from the perspective of the supporter rather than the one suffering from chronic illness. If chronic illness changes your life, it is going to impact those who love you. I have a son who has begun a battle with chronic illness, so I am finding out a little about the other side of this struggle. As people suffering with chronic illness, we need to acknowledge that those close to us are significantly impacted as well. If you are in denial about this, you will start to harbor resentment when you see changes in your loved ones’ behavior or attitude. They, in turn, will begin to resent your resentment. It doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s not your fault you are sick and hurting. If you have a reasonable-minded loved one, they know that too. Of course, there are situations where a person’s loved one(s) are not reasonable. Let’s save that scenario for another time. For now, I am going to assume that your spouse, child, parent, sibling, or friend cares deeply for you. They may struggle to understand what you are going through, but they want to understand, and they want to help in any way they can.
If these are safe assumptions for the relationships you are thinking about right now, then here are five truths to keep in mind about how chronic illness affects your relationship with them.
- Your Relationship Will Never Be The Same.
Unless you experience a miraculous healing or breakthrough medical treatment, chronic illness is here to stay. You cannot expect that someone who is hurting every day and struggling with associated fatigue and discouragement is going to behave in the same way they did before the illness began. This doesn’t mean your relationship will be worse for the wear, but it does mean it will be more challenging. This is why many fairweather friends disappear from your life when you get sick. If your loved one still desires to be supportive, then you have a keeper!
You will also need to be committed to patience and honesty. Don’t push through a flare to go with your spouse to a social event and then resent him or her for it when the effort was too much. And the supportive loved one will believe what their ailing friend or relative tells them. If they say they can’t do some activity, then believe them.
- It Is Okay To Safely Share Your Disappointments.
I have seen disappointment cross my wife’s face, at times, when I told her I didn’t feel like going out to eat or some other date-like activity. That’s completely normal! It would not be helpful if I gave her a guilt trip for being disappointed. But nor would I expect her to give me one for feeling bad. If she tells me, “I’m disappointed we can’t go out, but we can still enjoy dinner and a movie at home,” I can respond to her with something like, “I’m sorry. I wish I felt better. Hopefully, next time, we can go out.” We are going to be okay if we can safely share our disappointments with each other on this difficult journey. There’s no place for blaming or shaming along the way!
- You Are On The Same Team.
No matter how different your and your loved one’s perspectives may be, you are never enemies. Disease and pain are the enemies. Paul calls “death” the last enemy to be destroyed at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:26). Death, disease, and pain are unwelcomed but defeated intruders into your relationships with others. As we await the final culmination of that victory, we can commit to a united front against our enemies. Different perspectives shouldn’t be any more disturbing than taking more than one weapon to battle.
- Full Understanding Is Not Necessary.
If different perspectives are valued, then it follows that we don’t have to fully understand everything the other is going through. I am limited in understanding how my illness has affected my children, but I definitely want to know what I can. None of them know what it’s like to be in my body fighting what I do every day. As I mentioned above, one of them is having to find out for himself, but I would spare all of them if I could. The point is that I don’t have to fully understand my loved ones’ experiences and feelings to believe and value them. They can do the same for me.
- You Can Protect Each Other From Hopelessness.
What wisdom we find in the words of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 4:9-12):
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
We are better together than apart. We protect each other from being overpowered by hopelessness. We pick each other up. Chronic illness affects every aspect of your relationships, but don’t let it break you apart. Instead cling to each other as you cling to God, and God will see you through together!
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