I am a 30 year old wife and mother of a precious preschooler. I have been told I look the picture of health,
but in reality I experience pain every second of every day,
pain that keeps me from sitting more than a few minutes and frequently leaves me housebound.
As a nurse and former missionary abroad, I always was the picture of health until my mysterious pelvic pain began in the fall of 2008.
Despite caring for others experiencing intense suffering, I was ignorant of the realities of life with chronic pain, and I definitely didn’t know what to say or how to support someone with an invisible illness.
Nearly 1 in 2 people in the United States suffer from a chronic medical condition and approximately 96% of those have an illness that is invisible –
they may look completely healthy on the outside. Surprisingly, the majority are NOT elderly; sixty percent of Americans with chronic illness are between the ages of 18 and 64. http://invisibleillnessweek.com/media-toolkit/statistics/
How many people did you come in contact with today who were suffering silently?
A young mom at the park with her kids in horrendous pain with each push of the swing.
A co-worker so fatigued he’s just praying to make it through another day at work to provide for his family.
A lady struggling to lift the gallon of milk at the grocery.
Though there may be no wheelchair or cane, there is still deep hurt and disability.
When someone gets cancer, we know about it. Cancer is horrible and sometimes the outcome is grave, but one with cancer will rarely suffer alone. However, an invisible diagnosis of interstitial cystitis often leaves the patient to suffer in silence. The private nature of this pain prohibits them from speaking openly of their hurt, and no one can see their struggles from the outside.
I’ve been told I am too young to have pain…as if anyone has control over when illness strikes!
Sometimes people don’t try to understand my pain or put themselves in my shoes, but rather reply judgingly saying, “haven’t the doctors been able to figure anything out yet?”. Comments like these are often as bad as the pain itself, making one feel like their illness isn’t valid and so they feel they must suffer alone.
Sometimes people do make nice comments and pray for me, but they don’t know how to support me other than bringing a meal – which, though greatly appreciated, is not the only thing one with chronic illness needs.
So what should we say and how should we support those with chronic illnesses? How can the church strengthen the emotional and spiritual struggles that accompany physical pain?
Chronic illness sufferer Lisa Copen founded Rest Ministries, the largest Christian support organization for the chronically ill, and has written a great little book entitled Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend.
Lisa gives suggestions of how to practically encourage those with chronic illness:
• Offer to change her sheets. This is an impossible task for many people with chronic illness but an awkward one to ask for help with • Recognize that what they could do yesterday may not be possible today. Don’t question that. Every day is different.
• Ask, “Do you have an errand I can run for you before coming over?”
• When they say “I’m fine,” say, “No, I mean, how you are really? I know what fine means” and smile…
• Don’t say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” People rarely feel comfortable saying, “Yes, my laundry.” Instead pick something you are willing to do and then ask her permission. (More suggestions can be found in this excerpt from Beyond Casseroles by Lisa Copen)
Trying to form or maintain a friendship with someone with a chronic illness can feel like a daunting task.
You may be afraid of saying the wrong thing or feel awkward washing someone’s underwear you hardly know, but the most important thing you can offer someone with chronic pain or illness is your time.
A few weeks after we began attending a new church one of the ladies in my Sunday School Class called and asked what was my favorite drink from Sonic. She brought over a cherry limeade and sat and listened to me for a little while. It was one of the nicest things anyone has done for me since my pain began, yet it was so simple.
Chronic illness is physically hard, but the emotional and spiritual needs are often just as great. Don’t be afraid to visit someone with a chronic illness and chat, read the Bible, and pray with them regularly. We need to be reminded of God’s goodness and encouraged to fight the good fight of faith. This is a simple need the church often fails to meet.
Maybe you are reading this and you suffer with chronic illness or pain, and you are longing for support and encouragement. Take up someone’s offer to “call if you need anything” by actually calling!
Until we (in pain) are willing to lay aside our pride & receive help, we can’t expect empathy for invisible illness to grow.
Are you lonely? Start a chronic illness ministry or support group in your church or community, or check out Rest Ministries’ Sunroom to meet others with chronic illness.
Tell the truth when someone asks how you are doing – if we want others to understand our plight, we have to let them into our suffering.
Thankfully chronic illness awareness has been growing in recent years. National Invisible Illness Awareness Week is held annually in September. This year’s week is September 10-16th and will feature a free 5 day virtual conference on topics related to living with or supporting chronic illness. More information including helpful articles and resources can be found at www.invisibleillnessweek.com.
Caring for the chronically ill doesn’t have to be an elaborate display of service. Just think about what you would like if you were unable to leave the house or even the couch some days, and then do that. And remember: your time and genuine interest are the best gifts you can give one with chronic illness.
You can read more from the author as she strives to trust God daily for His grace in this momentary life at www.thepurposeofpain.blogspot.com.
Purpose of Pain will respond to each COMMENT in due time. Please give your feedback on this very sensitive and critical topic.
Are you living in pain? Do you love someone, or want to know better how to support, someone in chronic pain? What else would you ask this author to support you in learning compassion for those suffering in silence?