How do you respond when a family member or friend is diagnosed with a chronic illness? How can you support them in their grief?
Do Not Judge – It’s a Mindset, Not A Method
There are many practical, emotional, and spiritual ways you can (and should!) love and care for them – but there’s one thing I think is most important. It’s a mindset, not a method: Do not judge.
Everyone’s Diagnosis is Different
For some people diagnosis comes quickly – a lightning shower swooping out of nowhere, tearing the sky apart. One moment they are healthy and happy – the next they’re crying in pain and fear.
For others diagnosis is 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 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 that pivotal moment will be a thing of the past. Or perhaps we will enter their lives a decade or two passed diagnosis, and find ourselves struggling to understand not only the illness, but also the 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 no glory or shame with either of these scenarios. Both have their burdens and their joys.
It Might be Awful or It Might be OK
There’s nothing quite like the moment of diagnosis – life is torn up, shaken wildly, and returned upside-down and back to front. It can be a moment of shock for our loved one, when horror overcomes propriety and the world begins to crumble. It can also be a quiet moment of realization and relief, in which our loved one is finally allowed to place their pain into labelled boxes, and on the surface, life 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 in 21st century political correctness. While we know that everyone reacts differently to trauma and that all reactions are valid, it’s easy to be outwardly accepting, but inwardly critical. It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t react how we think they should, or how we think we would. Sometimes I think that while we say we understand their grief, we secretly wish they would hurry up and accept the diagnosis, because it would make our lives a whole lot easier!
Perhaps our loved one seems too blasé about their diagnosis, too over-the-top, too 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 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 is no room for judgement in a diagnosis.
How can we 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 as clinging to God is far better than turning away from Him, but is it really our role to judge our chronically ill loved one – to resent an undramatic diagnosis or secretly bridle at a ‘selfish’ response?
The Diagnosis Rule Applies to Us
Let us not look at our loved one’s diagnosis, or at our loved ones, with critical eyes. It’s easy to do, but we are called to love – and love leaves no room for judgement.
Let’s also not look back at our own responses 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 isn’t perfect, neither are we. In diagnosis, we have the unique opportunity to embrace vulnerability, turn to our Savior, 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 ending. There will be many opportunities for us to practice the one rule: do not judge, instead, love.
*First published at calledtowatch.com. **Republished with permission.
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Emily J. Maurits
Chronic Joy® Contributing Writer
After working for several years in the public health sector, Emily is now studying theology. She believes we are all called to love suffering people, because that's what Jesus did. She is passionate about equipping and encouraging others to do just that, and founded www.calledtowatch.com for the family and friends of those with chronic illnesses. As well as uncovering God's presence in the chaos of life, she enjoys reading, running and writing, with her memoir coming out next year.