“Coping with Chronic Illness,” Ensign, Mar. 2002, 58
Many illnesses cause temporary misery, but generally the afflicted know their health will improve in a matter of days. Such is not the case with chronic illness.
The term chronic illness encompasses a multitude of prolonged conditions with a variety of symptoms. With adjustments, some individuals with such illnesses are able to live fairly normal lives. Others must radically curtail their daily activities. All must learn to deal with loss in some way—in short, to live differently.
The gospel, scriptures, priesthood blessings, family and friends, and other resources can help provide strength for dealing with the challenges of living with chronic illness. What follows are suggestions and insights gained by Church members who have experienced these conditions.
I had fibromyalgia for most of my life and began having symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity disorder at age 19. When I was in my mid-20s, my illnesses took a turn for the worse, leaving me housebound and unable to care for my family. Prior to that time I had many interests and abilities, I was active in Church callings, and I attended the temple frequently. When all of that was taken away, I felt my identity had been taken away as well. I went through a period of grieving for loss of self as I might grieve for the loss of another through death.
It took years before I really felt in my heart that Heavenly Father valued me no matter what I could or could not do. My talents and interests, which I had thought of as an integral part of me, were really like a beautiful set of jewels that I had been privileged to wear for a time. They could be taken off without changing who I really was.
I realized that Heavenly Father’s love for us is greater than we can comprehend. He will not always take the pain away, but He will always be there to help us.
Even now, having regained my health, I find it difficult to look back on those many years of pain without being overcome by emotions. Yet I am grateful for this trial because of the many things I have learned and because of the person it has helped me become.—Alice E. Workman, Sequim First Ward, Port Angeles Washington Stake
Our experience with chronic illness began almost 10 years ago when our bright, energetic son Russell, then a senior in high school, developed an unnamed neurological disorder. He left the hospital grateful to be alive but unable to sit, stand, walk, or speak clearly. His mind was still intact, however, and his sense of humor was as sharp as ever. We rejoiced in bringing him home and began to put our family back together.
The experience has reinforced our belief that every Church member needs to serve in some way. Russ is now a home teacher. Since most homes are not wheelchair-accessible, his assigned family comes to our home once a month to receive their visit and gospel discussion. When it is Russ’s turn to teach, he downloads the First Presidency message from the Church Web site onto his computer and then prepares a discussion for his companion to read. He often adds graphics and his own testimony.
Since I am his 24-hour caregiver, I am also unable to hold a demanding Church calling. However, I am able to be a visiting teaching supervisor, which requires making telephone calls each month.
Our family has come to better appreciate our relationships with those around us, and we have had some special experiences as we have shared our burden with others. For example, a special home teacher did research and then led a fund-raising campaign to buy Russ a speech synthesizer. A great deal of love and generosity went into the project. At first my husband was hesitant to have others pay for something he thought he should provide. Our home teacher helped him realize it was something that the many people who wanted to help could do. They needed it as much as Russ did. We realized that Heavenly Father did not intend for us to be completely independent from those around us. We need each other.—Lynda Monson, Burley Ninth Ward, Burley Idaho Stake
After being diagnosed with a rare disease called scleroderma, I put all my faith and trust in the medical specialists. But was I in for a shock when they told me there is no known cause and no known cure for the disease! I soon realized I needed to adjust my thinking and ultimately rely on Heavenly Father. While I continued to work closely with my doctors, doing all I could to cope with this disease, I placed Heavenly Father at the head of my medical team. I prayed to Him before, during, and after every one of my doctor appointments, both for myself and the doctors treating me. Heavenly Father really is the greatest expert of all, no matter what our ailment might be.
I also created what I called a “coping file,” which held my patriarchal blessing, uplifting quotes and stories, letters and cards of love and encouragement from family and friends, and copies of my favorite general conference talks. I kept this folder in a special place in my bookcase so I knew just where to find it when I started feeling blue.
Also effective were the pictures of the Savior I displayed throughout my home. I was able to see Him no matter what room I was in. When I looked into His eyes, I was reminded to shift my focus from my pain to His voluntary suffering on my behalf. And when I lifted my vision from my physical and immediate condition and tried to have a more spiritual, eternal perspective, I saw my trials in a whole new light.—Reneé Roy Harding, Sugar Land First Ward, Houston Texas South Stake
Being a parent with chronic health problems is difficult but not all bad. I am sure my children were disappointed—as was I—when I couldn’t ride bikes with them or always be there to cheer them on at track meets. But as adults, they tell me how much it meant to them that they always knew where they could find me and that they could tell me anything because I always had the time to talk. They said every night was like family home evening at our house. They all learned about responsibility and how to do their share of the housework. They watched their father tenderly help me in so many ways, and now they are better spouses because of it. They have learned to be kind and loving and to have empathy for others who struggle. Would I trade these lessons learned by myself and others? On my bad days I might be tempted. But no. This experience has taught me, my family, and many others things that are priceless and eternal.—Linda Petersen, Buena Vista First Ward, Washington Utah Buena Vista Stake
I have had osteoarthritis since my early 20s and have also developed fibromyalgia and asthma. There were times I used to wonder if I had done something in the premortal existence to earn such “punishment,” but during one of my many priesthood blessings I was reassured that it wasn’t a punishment at all, that Heavenly Father was well aware of my condition and would help me endure it.
I have often had to call on my husband for a priesthood blessing to get me through the pain and illness so I could cope with the task at hand. I know that after all the pills, injections, and treatments, it is the power of the priesthood that has helped the most. I have also been helped by placing my name on the temple prayer roll.
As the years have passed, my ability to do things has diminished. Instead of the calligraphy and handcraft I used to love doing, I now do mountains of family history research for family and friends. I take comfort from the scripture “to every thing there is a season” (Eccl. 3:1). Now is my season to do quiet, gentle things.—Barbara Christensen, Greenmount Ward, Perth Australia Dianella Stake
After I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I found that the Lord helped me more as I became more active in the management of my condition. When I was first diagnosed, one doctor, a specialist in the field, suggested I sit back and allow the disease to take its course, since there was nothing I could do about it. By following that advice, I could easily have sunk into a state of hopelessness and despair, which are among the adversary’s favorite tools. Instead, I was blessed with friends and family who helped provide me with information about my condition. I found that good information could empower me and give me hope.
There are many sources where information can be found: medical journals, the local library, bookstores, the Internet. Realize, however, that not all information is truth. The Lord commands us to obtain wisdom and learning from the best resources (see D&C 88:118; D&C 109:14).—Scott Hinrichs, North Ogden 11th Ward, North Ogden Utah East Stake
Since I was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness five years ago, one of my most important resources for comfort has been the scriptures. As I have read and pondered, I have been blessed with peace and a better understanding of my situation.
For example, as I first read the book of Ether in the Book of Mormon, it was easy to compare my afflictions to the furious wind the Lord sent to blow the Jaredite barges across the great deep (see Ether 6:5–6). I realized He was blowing them in the direction they needed to go! Isn’t that the way I want to go as well—to a land of promise and a purer heart?
I learned about the importance of prayer as I read that when the Jaredites were buried in the depths of the sea, they cried unto the Lord and He delivered them (see Ether 6:7). I have followed their example, and my faith has increased as I have been delivered from pain and discouragement.
I learned about gratitude as I read that the Jaredites, in the midst of their journey, sang praises to the Lord and thanked Him day and night (see Ether 6:9). When they finally reached the promised land, they bowed themselves in humility and shed tears of joy because they considered their harrowing voyage an example of “the multitude of His tender mercies” (Ether 6:12). By changing my perspective, I have also been able to recognize the tender hand of the Lord in my life day by day and sometimes even hour by hour.
I keep a scripture journal and jot down my thoughts and comparisons as I study. This has been a great comfort to me as I have gone back over previous entries, remembering past insights and recognizing my spiritual growth. Through my experience with chronic illness, my heart has changed and I have come to know the Lord as I have studied His words.—Melissa Coffin, Seattle 12th Ward, Seattle Washington Stake
In the more than 10 years that I have battled Crohn’s disease, I have found that music is a great source of inspiration and strength to me, especially at times when I am struggling to cope with my daily challenges.
Recently I was having a difficult month, and I found myself asking questions such as “Why am I so sick?” “Will there ever be an end to this suffering?” At the time, a recording of Church hymns was playing on my stereo. The words of one hymn caught my attention:
Where can I turn for peace?
Where is my solace
When other sources cease to
make me whole? …
Where is the quiet hand to calm
Who, who can understand?
He, only One.
He answers privately,
Reaches my reaching
In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.
(Hymns, no. 129)
The words touched my heart and provided the comfort I sought. On many similar occasions when I have longed for peace, I have found that inspiring music uplifts my spirit.—Hazel A. Grey, Te Awamutu Branch, Temple View New Zealand Stake
If you would like to help someone with a chronic illness, ask what his or her needs are, and recognize that these needs may not remain constant. Realize too that the severity of one’s physical condition is not necessarily reflected in one’s appearance. People may look healthy even when they are not feeling well.
Do not take offense if an individual declines one of your visits. He or she may not feel up to a social call, but that does not mean your friendship is not desired. Indeed, the individual may be in particular need of your friendship, as feelings of isolation are common among those with chronic illnesses.
Do not criticize an individual’s course of medical treatment. Instead, be willing to listen so that individuals can make wise decisions on their own. Some people appreciate receiving relevant information from reliable publications, but ask if such information is desired before you get involved.
Recognize the person behind the illness. Avoid using labels such as “the sister with Parkinson’s disease” or “the boy in the wheelchair.” And do not assume that a person who is physically incapacitated is mentally incapacitated as well. Even if an individual cannot speak vocally, he or she will appreciate your attention when you greet him or her directly instead of speaking only with other family members.
Do not suggest that an individual’s affliction is the result of sin or that he or she could be healed if greater faith were exercised. And don’t suggest that the individual could overcome his or her condition through mere willpower.
Even if you presume an individual is not able to attend a ward activity or social event, extend the invitation and allow him or her to decide. It is helpful to ask ahead of time if there are ways in which an event could be made more accessible or a menu altered to accommodate a special diet.
Many ill individuals who cannot attend Church meetings appreciate it when the meetings are brought to them. Ask the bishop to inquire about priesthood holders bringing the sacrament to the member’s home. The individual might appreciate receiving a copy of the sacrament meeting program, ward newsletter, lesson handouts, or tapes of lessons and talks.
Being a caregiver to an individual with a chronic illness can be physically and emotionally taxing. Consider offering to give the caregiver an afternoon or day off. You might prepare some activities you could do with the chronically ill person as you visit.
“When we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, this admits us eventually to what Paul called the ‘fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings’ (Philip. 3:10). Whether illness or aloneness, injustice or rejection, etc., our comparatively small-scale sufferings, if we are meek, will sink into the very marrow of the soul. We then better appreciate not only Jesus’ sufferings for us, but also His matchless character, moving us to greater adoration and even emulation.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “From Whom All Blessings Flow,” Ensign, May 1997, 12.
More on this topic: See Sherrie Johnson, “Helping Those with Chronic Illness,”Ensign, July 1994, 56–60; Richard G. Scott, “To Be Healed,”Ensign, May 1994, 7–9; Libby Knapp, “Living with Chronic Illness,”Ensign, Mar. 1991, 51–53.
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