How do you respond when a family member or friend is diagnosed with a chronic illness? How can you possibly support them in their grief?
There are many practical, emotional and spiritual ways you can (and should!) love and care for them – but there’s one thing that I think is most important. It’s a mindset, not a method…
The one rule of a chronic illness diagnosis:
Do not judge.
Everyone’s diagnosis is different
A diagnosis might be quick – or drawn out
For some people diagnosis comes quickly, a lightning spring shower swooping out of nowhere, tearing the sky apart. One moment they are healthy and happy – and the next they’re crying in pain and fear.
For others it’s more gradual, like following a paper trail, picking up pieces of the puzzle one at a time until everything makes sense, and the sneaking suspicion is confirmed.
It’s important to remember that however a chronic illness diagnosis begins, it still must be lived through, and this can take a very long time.
We might be there during the diagnosis – or we might not
Sometimes it feels good to be there at the moment of discovery, so we can put an arm around our sick family member and feel like we are doing something. It is a (hard) gift to be able to weep with them and pray for them.
But not all of us will receive that chance. Sometimes we won’t meet our sick friend until after their diagnosis, and this pivotal moment will be a thing of the past. Or perhaps we will enter their lives after a decade or two has passed, and then find ourselves struggling to understand not only their illness, but also the many highs and lows of the intervening years.
In these cases it’s easy to feel as though we have a lifetime of catching up to do. And yet there’s not glory or shame with either of these scenarios. Both have their burdens and their joys.
Chronic illness is not an end but a beginning – so let’s make the most of it! Tweet!
Diagnosis might be awful – or it might be ‘ok’
There’s nothing quite like that moment of diagnosis when life is torn up, shaken wildly and returned upside-down and back the front.
It can be a moment of true shock for our loved one, where horror overcomes propriety and the world begins to crumple around them.
It can also be a time of quiet realisation and relief, in which our loved one is finally allowed to place their pains in tiny labelled boxes, and life on the surface appears to ‘go on’.
We must remember that it is not up to us to judge our family member’s diagnosis. No ‘ideal’ scenario exists. There is no prize for heartbreak.
Everyone’s reaction is different
We’ve all been schooled nicely in 21st century political correctness. We ‘know’ that everyone reacts differently to trauma and all reactions are valid.
Still, it’s easy to be outwardly accepting but inwardly critical. It is frustrating when someone does not react how we think they should, or how we think we would. Sometimes I think that while we understand their grief, we still secretly wish that they would hurry up and ‘accept’ their diagnosis – it would make our lives a lot easier!
Perhaps our loved one seems too blaze about their chronic illness diagnosis, or over-the-top distraught. Maybe they are refusing to accept help – and that leaves us feeling helpless and annoyed. Or what if they are denying their diagnosis altogether? In this situation do we really feel as inclined to remember that their response is valid?
It’s so, so tempting to wish our sick friend would simply soldier on, overcome all odds, retain their optimism, and achieve a happy finale within a few hours. But that’s film, not life.
The one rule in a diagnosis:
There’s no room for judgement in a diagnosis. How can we possibly dare to suggest that one person’s diagnosis story is superior to another’s, or that our sick family member is responding wrongly?
Of course some reactions are healthier than others. Just like clinging to God is far better than turning away from Him.
But is it really our role to judge our chronically ill spouse? To resent their undramatic diagnosis or secretly bridle at their ‘selfish’ response?
I don’t think it is.
The diagnosis rule applies to us
And so in the midst of their diagnosis let us not look at the situation or our loved ones with critical eyes. It’s difficult, but we are called to love them – and judgement leaves no room for love.
In the same way, let us not look back at our own response with critical eyes. It’s easy to feel that we ought to have been stronger, wiser, more supportive, less critical – and perhaps we could have!
But just as our sick family member is not perfect, neither are we. In diagnosis we have the unique opportunity to embrace vulnerability, turn to our Saviour, and ask Him to be everything we are not.
We also have the unique opportunity of a second chance. A chronic illness diagnosis is a beginning not an end. As a result there will be many opportunities for us to practice the one rule: do not judge, and instead, to love.
// Have you experienced the diagnosis of a friend or family member? In what ways was it painful for you as well as them? Were you tempted to judge – even a tiny bit?
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|| This post was revised and rewritten October 2017||