Sunday, February 26, 2017

An Outside Perspective Pt. 2: Responding to Chronic Illness

"If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" James 2:15-16

     In my last post, I wrote about chronic illness, and how we who do not struggle with it can better understand what life is like for those who do. Hopefully that was helpful, but simply being more aware and maybe feeling sad about it isn't going to accomplish much when all is said and done. Increased compassion for the hurting is good, and it should lead us to the obvious question: "So what can I do?" I was reading Romans 12 several days ago, a passage which is full of practical guidance for how we ought to live as God's people. Several points are, I think, particularly applicable here.

"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." Romans 12:15
     This doesn't mean, of course, that we should feel guilty when we feel happy, since other people are sad. What it does mean is that, within the Body of Christ, we ought to walk closely enough that when our brother or sister is joyful or suffering, we are affected by it. We experience it with them. Chronic illness makes this difficult because, as I mentioned before, it is so isolating. In the normal course of life, friendships often fade as we see people less, and new ones develop. That's fine, but chronic illness is a bit different. Those who suffer with it are often forced to step back from most, or even all social circles. Life goes on for everyone else, and it begins to seem that everyone has forgotten them.

       "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." (Proverbs 17:17) True friendship is proven in times of trial, not shattered or frustrated by it. If someone you know is chronically ill, be intentional about reaching out to them. Let them know that you you are thinking about and praying for them. Keep on being there for them, even when they can't be there for you. If they have to drop a coffee date because they just feel too bad to go out, rather than feeling that you've been ditched, realize how disappointed they must be to miss one more thing they were looking forward to, take some time to pray for them or write them an encouraging note, and make it a point to try again soon. Text or call and ask how they are doing, even when you know the answer will probably be the same. And keep doing it. Don't assume they know you are thinking about them; communicate it."Weep with those who weep" isn't a one time thing. Walking alongside, and being a true friend to someone with chronic illness requires love shown through perseverance and patience.

"Contribute to the needs of the saints..." Romans 12:13a 
Within the Body of Christ we are blessed with a unique family relationship, and as we pray for a brother or sister in need... it may just be that God desires us to be His hands and feet in providing for them. Chronic illness is overwhelming, and not just to the one suffering, but to their family. It is hard, hard, hard to watch someone you love suffering and feel helpless to fix it, and the illness can cause strain in other areas as well. Often, chronic illness becomes a massive financial burden. Some chronic illnesses result in extreme food sensitivities and require a special (translation: expensive) diet. Treatment may involve a laundry list of supplements you couldn't begin to pronounce (again: expensive). Some tests and treatments may not be covered by insurance (expensive expensive expensive). You get the idea. Also, when living with the pain and fatigue of chronic illness in such a fast paced world, routine tasks like cleaning, yardwork, keeping kids busy, and running errands can become overwhelming.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to meeting needs, because needs vary. What is helpful for one person might be stressful for another. So how can you know what will help? Allow me to offer a simple solution that may seem obvious: ask. Don't say “Let me know if there's any way I can help!” That's well meant, I know, but odds are no one is going to call you and say, “Hey, remember when you offered to help awhile back? Well, we're really struggling with the supplement bill this month....” Instead, try something more specific: “What can I do that will be a help to you?” And keep asking. Look for opportunities too. A meal may be a blessing, but if explaining dietary restrictions is too complicated, why not bless them with a gift card to their preferred grocery store instead? Offer an afternoon of childcare so they can rest. Ask if you can pick something up for them at the store. Or maybe just come over for a visit, if they feel well enough. Seek to do something that will really serve and leave them feeling blessed and loved, not just a thing that will salve your conscience for awhile. And before, during, and after seeking to serve, pray.

Speaking of prayer, that will be the topic of my final post in this series: how faith in God plays out in the midst of a trial that can seem hopeless.

**I don't pretend to have this all figured out. These are areas where I need to grow as well.
***Chronic illness is a broad term, and as with anything else, there is no universal stereotype for those who are chronically ill. What is felt by and/or helpful to one person might not be the same as someone else. I don't pretend to speak for all those who suffer with chronic illness, only to offer what I have observed in the hope that it may be helpful. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Outside Perspective Pt 1: Understanding Chronic Illness

(of an illness) persisting for a long time or constantly recurring.

     When was the last time you were sick? (Last Friday in my case). No fun, huh? Did you curl up in bed and watch movies, waiting for your aches and pain to pass? Did you power through cold symptoms at work or school while your nose dripped, your throat burned, and your head was in a fog? Being sick is miserable. It stinks. When we get sick we put life on pause if we can, and if we can't, we may feel a bit sorry for ourselves. We try to get rest, move a little slower, and trust people will have grace for us if we're not in a particularly cheery mood. Then we get better, and life goes on.

     But imagine, if you will, that miserable feeling being a constant. Rather than hitting hard and moving on with a possible week or so of recovery afterward, imagine it stretching on for days... weeks... months... years. The specific symptoms may be different (and often worse) but if you have been imagining along with me, you have gotten a taste of what it's like to be chronically ill.

     I am not chronically ill, but my mom and brother have a chronic illness (as do 2 of my closest friends) so I have, in a sense, lived with it and seen its merciless effects first hand. It is isolating. It is discouraging. It is wearying. It is misunderstood. It is frightening. In writing this post, I'll try to do in text what I often have in conversation- explain at least a little of what makes chronic illness so hard.

      First, chronic illness is hidden. Most of those who suffer with it don't look sick, and consequently, they are often misunderstood. They have to function as best as they can with pain as a constant companion, because that's just how life is. So when you see them a smiling and laughing that doesn't mean everything is fine. They may be an expert at hiding just how bad they're feeling, and what you also don't see is that the price of today's social event may be a crash tomorrow, as they expended far more energy than they really had. For them, doing things we take for granted comes at a high price. As energy is limited, activities must become limited. As they are forced to step back from things they enjoyed before, as they have to keep saying "no," life keeps going on, and they may increasingly feel forgotten or left behind. Chronic illness is by its nature isolating and lonely.
     Second, chronic illness is... well... chronic. It just keeps going, long past the point one would feel they could endure it. People ask, "how are you feeling?" and the choices are either to hide the truth with a simple "fine" or to be honest and say "pretty terrible" over and over and over and over. There are ups and downs, but when the truth is usually discouraging, sometimes people get tired of asking. There's often no end in sight, and even when one's faith is strong, enduring pain day after day after day is wearying. Also, many chronic illnesses are hard to diagnose, and often it can mean years of doctors and tests with no answers... and then when answers do come the implications may be bleak. They need prayer for endurance.

     I feel safe in saying that possibly the most hurtful thing for someone who is chronically ill is for someone (especially someone close to them) to doubt that they are really sick. When someone is fighting pain and exhaustion day after day, the implication (however well it is meant) that it's all in their head is like a dagger. I have seen this happen more than once, and I can't begin to describe the pain it causes. Remember, chronic illness is hidden. Just because you can't see it, don't understand it, and may not have a label to attach to it doesn't mean it isn't there. If someone you love is chronically ill, and you are struggling with skepticism, please, please do not express it, and do not judge them. Try instead to be there for them. Try to be humble and teachable, ready to believe them, And if you are truly struggling with reservations about it, I do understand, it's hard to understand its effects when you haven't witnessed them first hand. Let me encourage you to bring that before God, and ask Him to help you see the situation as He sees it.

     Even having witnessed the effects of chronic illness on a day to day basis, it's still easy for me to forget or minimize just how bad those I love are feeling. That's why I'm sharing all this- in the hope that we might, as brothers and sisters in Christ, be able to have a better understanding of something that is often hard to grasp. In the next post I'll share some thoughts about practical ways to love those who are chronically ill, but in the meantime, just trying to understand (and praying!!) is a good place to start.

***Chronic illness is a broad term, and as with anything else, there is no universal stereotype for those who are chronically ill. What is felt by and/or helpful to one person might not be the same as someone else. I don't pretend to speak for all those who suffer with chronic illness, only to offer what I have observed in the hope that it may be helpful.