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The Art of Being Sick

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It takes work to maintain a balance of communication when living on the edge of death for months or even years at a time. On one hand, people get tired of hearing about your illness. There reaches a certain point in an illness where people just want to hear that you are getting better. It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not, and it’s likely less about you than it is about them. But the truth remains that anyone who has sat near death long enough to become comfortable and familiar with the inevitable end, or anyone who has hobbled through endless days enduring crippling pain can tell you that there is a point where the only acceptable answer to “How are you doing?” Is, “So much better, thanks for asking.”

The converse is also true. If you have been stoically making your way through a life threatening illness only to find yourself back in the hospital, or enduring another surgery, or, heaven forbid, calling the family together to say your final good-byes, then friends will chastise you for not reaching out to them. They’ll make you feel as if you deserted them by shutting them out of your pain and misery.

There is a middle ground, though. There are some ways that you can maintain and even strengthen your friendships during the course of your illness. 1) Make light of your latest symptoms. Present your diagnosis in a positive or a humorous lens. You can be terribly ill, and still let those who care about you know you haven’t lost your sense of humor. 2) Tell the story through their eyes. “You can probably relate to this given your “choose the relative’s’ experience”, and let them empathize. Each person has a story, and while your life has been absorbed with your illness, chances are life has dealt your friend a blow or two as well. 3) Be honest. Let them know what was true for you – you needed to take a break from thinking about your illness, you were tired / busy with doctor’s appointments / unwilling to face what was going on / curled under a blanket. 4) Ask about their lives. While you have been buried under your own illness, your friend’s lives have continued. Their experience is just as important as your experience. What challenges are they facing? What joys fill their days? What does their future hold?

See, being sick is hard. Being sick for a long time is harder. Being sick and not knowing if you will live past your illness is downright brutal. What is also true is that it is hard to be a friend to someone who is going through a difficult illness. It’s hard to know when to ask how they are doing, and when to turn the conversation to calmer shores. It’s hard to know when to give a person room and when to barge right on in. And the internet makes it harder still. Social networking sites create a difficult dilemma for a sick person. Too many posts describing your illness, treatments and symptoms will get you blocked. Ignoring the fact that you are not feeling well might wrongly signal to friends that you are doing fine and don’t need their support.

Being a friend one who is sick is also hard. It’s hard to know what to say, what to do, how to show care, and how to balance helping one in need with all of life’s other demands. When dealing with an illness remember that there is a middle ground between shutting others out of your struggles, and inundating a concerned friend with your symptoms. Finding this middle ground is an art, and art worth pursuing so that loved ones remain at your side as you travel the difficult road that accompanies a severe, chronic illness.

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About the Author:

Professor and award winning author, world traveler, Mom, thought leader, mentor, friend, and advocate Vicki Whiting, Ph.D. is dedicated to the facilitation of learning and the development of leaders in all walks of life.

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