By: Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT
Connie is sitting in the lobby of her doctor’s office waiting for the door to open and her name to be called. In reality, she is waiting for so much more than that. Connie is waiting for her husband to come back from the longest deployment they have ever experienced as a family. She is waiting for her 2- year old son to start using more words so that his tantrums will decrease. She is waiting for the phone call from her realtor that their house has finally sold so that they can prepare for their next move. She is waiting to find out why her body doesn’t seem to function like it did last year.
This has been the hardest year of Connie’s life. In addition to all of the daily stressors of being a full-time working mother with a husband who has been deployed for most of the year, Connie has been experiencing a multitude of unexplainable symptoms. She has been referred to countless specialists who all seem to be just as mystified as she is about the decline in her health. Because she lives in a rural town, she has had to travel to be seen by most of the specialists only to be poked, prodded, and sent home with no answers again.
Connie can’t sleep. Her hair is falling out. She is in pain more often than not. It appears as though none of her doctors have communicated with each other, as she has to repeat her story at each new visit. Her sick leave is running low at work and her desk is piled high with endless tasks that need to be completed. As she sits in the lobby today, Connie thinks about her children and her job and her husband and her friends. She closes her eyes tightly and uses her last ounce of hope on the thought that this may be the time she finally gets an answer.
The diagnosis process for Connie is familiar to many people with chronic illness. Oftentimes, it is neither a simple nor quick process. Here are some things to consider when you have a family member or friend with a chronic illness:
They may not look sick: If you don’t remember anything else from this list, remember this. Many chronic illnesses are invisible; meaning you are unable to see them from the outside. This does not make the illness any less significant or serious.
Don’t ask them how they are doing unless you really want to know: This applies to everyone you ask, but especially those suffering from chronic illness. While you are certainly trying to sound considerate and supportive, this question can actually have the opposite effect if you really don’t want to know the answer. Many times, the person you ask is trying their very best to make you comfortable with their answer by saying that they are fine. The truth is, though, they are probably not “fine”.
Don’t offer unsolicited advice: Telling a person with a chronic illness that they should try the latest and greatest remedy for their condition can be insulting. It can also be frustrating. What if they have already tried that remedy and it didn’t work? What if they just can’t muster up the energy to try anything else at the moment? What if they don’t want solutions, but just a place to vent or find support? So, unless someone asks you directly for advice, try to keep it to yourself.
Offer support: While you may not be able to help “cure” your loved one, you can certainly be supportive. Ask them what you can do to help support them. Offer to go with them to an appointment, pick their children up from school on an especially hard day, etc.
Remember that they are a person first: Before any illness comes the person. When your loved one is suffering from a chronic illness, remember this! They may not want to talk about their diagnosis or their symptoms. Perhaps they just want to tell you about something funny they saw on tv or an interesting meeting they had at work. Always keep the person and the illness separate.
Be empathetic: No, you can’t put yourself in their shoes. It’s impossible to do that. Even if you had the exact same illness, your experience would be different. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be empathetic to their situation. Don’t compare their illness to someone else’, don’t tell them you know how they feel. Do validate what they are feeling and do encourage them to talk to you.
Next time you decide to reach out to someone with a chronic illness, try to consider these things. If you would like more information on ways to empower families in their journey surrounding chronic illness, check out our archived webinars here.
This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the Social Media and Programming Coordination Specialist for the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development concentration on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.