Do you have a chronic illness? Do you know someone who has a chronic illness?
Today I want to share part of my story with you and why it is vital for me to find Jesus in every situation. Exactly one year ago today, June 22, 2015 I was diagnosed with Mast Cell Disease, an extremely rare, incurable, life threatening illness. I often refer to Mast Cell Disease as “allergic to life.” No two people have the same symptoms or the same triggers. For many of us, including myself, we even have allergic reactions with no identifiable cause. It’s very hard to diagnose. Most doctors have never heard of it. Just a few of my symptoms include, bone pain, severe headaches, daily hives, difficulty breathing, and the scariest of all, anaphylaxis. (A life threatening allergic reaction. I have to be injected with Epinephrine at home so I can breathe, then I’m rushed to the hospital for more lifesaving treatment.) I’ve had 19 anaphylaxes in just over a year. Some of the seemingly harmless things that can trigger a reaction or anaphylaxis for me are being too hot, skipping a meal, not getting enough sleep, fragrances, sunlight, many raw fruits and vegetables, and even emotions.
I know this post is a little more serious than some, but I share all of that to let you see what life can be like for someone with a chronic illness and how you can help someone find Jesus in the middle of her pain. I cannot cope without intentionally looking for Jesus in each moment. I wake up every day knowing I could be in the hospital by the end of the day, or I could be at home watching sports. (Thank you Pittsburgh Penguins, 2016 Stanley Cup Champs!) So, I have to intentionally find moments where I can recognize the presence of Jesus. Without knowing He is with me every step of the way, I feel hopeless.
There are two things I frequently see people wrestle with when they meet someone with a chronic illness. I’m wondering if you’ve thought it too? The first is the realization that if it happens to someone else, it can happen to me. I wrestle with that when I see someone going through something different from what I face. The second is, how can I believe in an all loving, all-powerful God who has the power to heal when I see my friend go through this?
Those are the kind of thoughts that can rock you to your core. Those are also the thoughts that make people pull away. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to be friends with someone who is chronically ill. When you don’t know what to say or do, sometimes it’s easier to say hi in passing, and then slip away. Your friend’s reality has changed, and it’s scary for both of you.
So, what can you do?
In Matthew 25:34-36 Jesus talks about how we all can show Him to others in this world.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” NIV
“I was sick and you looked after me.” That’s what you can do. Look after those who have chronic illnesses. In conversations I’ve had with others who deal with chronic illnesses, there are a number of things that frequently come up when we talk about needing support from Christians. I have some amazing friends who have shown Jesus to me in the hardest of moments.
I want to give you 10 ways you can help look after someone living with a chronic illness.
- Admit you don’t know what to say. Personally, I’m not looking for you to have answers. What I need is to know I don’t have to face this alone.
- Listen to your friend. Sometimes I need to process things out loud. I may need to vent about something hard or share a funny moment. Sharing it with someone who cares makes it easier. Don’t feel like you must have a quick Bible verse or cliché ready. Just listen.
- Tell your friend you believe her. When someone has an illness with no end, she often hears people (including doctors) question the validity of her symptoms. People often think, or even say “is that really something you deal with” or “there is no way you can be in that much pain.” Being believed is worth gold.
- Ask questions to understand more, and take time to read about whatever they tell you they’re dealing with. Your friend needs someone who tries to enter into her world. It makes me feel loved and important when someone says they’ve googled Mast Cell Disease or ask if I want to explain more about what I deal with.
- Don’t be afraid to be emotional with your friend. Are you angry because she’s going through this? Let her know. Does your heart break for her? Tell her. Are you amazed at the strength she shows? Make sure she knows that. You lessen her burden when you share in her struggles and her triumphs
- Ask if there is any way you can help, and be honest about your limitations when she replies. There are some days I need someone to carry my purse for me, but I don’t like it when someone simply picks it up assuming I can’t. Ask and I’ll be honest. When it comes to time considerations, make sure you know what you can and can’t do. I have one friend who will remind me she is a phone call away if I need a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Because of her family’s needs, she may need notice, but she’ll do it. She clearly communicates what she can and can’t do.
- Remember they might not “get better.” I know people mean well when they say “get well soon,” and it is something easy to say, but sometimes that’s frustrating. I never stop hoping to be free from this, but isn’t a cold that will go away with some extra rest. If your friend is headed to an appointment or starting a new treatment, offer your prayers and well wishes instead of saying you hope she is completely better soon.
- Pray for your friends and with your friends. It means the world to me when someone asks me how they can specifically pray for me, if I feel comfortable sharing details. Often, I do have a list of things I’m specifically concerned about. To have someone else care that much to enter into the details of my life is priceless. If your friend is vague, don’t push for details. It might be a time where she doesn’t want to think about her struggles, or she may just not be ready to tell you details. If possible, ask if you can call and pray with her. Visiting in person depends on the individual. For me, that’s difficult, but when someone calls and prays with me, it means so much. Someone took extra time for me. If you can’t talk, consider taking time to write out your prayer in a text, email, or if appropriate, a Facebook post. Even make a short video on your phone and send it to her. Usually when I post on my Facebook wall asking for prayer, I can count on one friend who will take the to write out his prayer for me. Those prayers don’t just touch me deeply; they minister to my friends who deal with similar things.
- Let your friend know she has value. She may have many days where she feels like her only job is to make sure her couch doesn’t float away. Sometimes simply surviving takes all the physical energy she has. Yet she craves meaning and purpose in her life. Remind her of who she is. Is she funny, caring, or a good listener? Let her know she adds value to your life
- Keep sharing your life with her. So often people assume because I’m dealing with something life-threatening, I don’t have time for their “little” problems. I understand how scary life can be. So, sometimes I can be the person who “gets it” in a way others may not. I want to know what is going on in my friends lives when they’re hurting. Don’t assume someone with a chronic illness is always too overwhelmed for you. Many times, that person is just waiting for an opportunity to give back.
Thank you for reading! Do you have a chronic illness? Is there something people do for you that helps and I didn’t list it? Are you looking for more ways to help someone you love who has a chronic illness? Please leave a comment so we can connect. Also, let me know if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future blog post.