If you’d asked me a few years ago what the number one thing you could do to support your chronically ill family member was, I probably would have said don’t judge. In fact, I did, and I wrote a whole blog post about it on my blog Called To Watch.
But while you’re busy ‘not judging,’ what’s a positive way to support your chronically ill family member? I believe the best thing we can do as family members is to hope.
Hope. I know that’s probably a very frustrating answer. After all, being told to ‘hope’ sometimes feels akin to being told to ‘relax’ or ‘chill’. Easier said than done! It’s also annoyingly abstract — a nice idea which doesn’t quite fit in your real world. What does ‘hope’ even mean? What does hope look like?
If these objections are yours, I sympathize, I really do. For a long time they were mine! Yet I still think our greatest need, and our loved one’s greatest need, is hope. You’ll find out why later on, but for now… What do I mean by hope?
I mean believing the future contains possibilities.
Do you believe this? At first you probably did. When your family member or friend received their diagnosis, I’m going to assume you didn’t immediately throw your hands into the air and exclaim, ‘That’s it! I’m done! The situation is hopeless!’ As humans, we can be amazingly resilient.
But what about now? After months or years of watching someone struggle with their health, it’s surprisingly easy to let hope slink out the back door. You might not even notice your attitude has changed! Or if you do, perhaps you feel defensive. After all, surely it’s realistic to accept that your loved one might not be cured and may instead get worse.
Does this describe you right now? If not, it might one day. It can be so easy to let go of hope.
Why We Need to Cling on to Hope
If you’re going to do more than survive in this life, if you’re going to thrive, you need hope. Why?
Hope is the truth
While we live there is hope. That’s simply a fact. There are very few certainties in life, and none of us can know for sure what the future brings. That doesn’t mean there is always hope for healing, but it does mean there is always hope that things will change.
Hope enriches life
It’s very hard to laugh, enjoy life or love others when you believe that your future is one predetermined hallway of suffering leading to a single door of painful death.
But what about if you believe in an eternity of painlessness behind that door? Surely that’s all the hope you need?
Yes, and no.
The reality is, you can have earthly hope (a belief in possibilities) without Hope (a belief in God).
However, if you do have Hope, and believe in a God who can do the impossible, you have all the more reason to hold onto earthly hope! You serve a God who is not only capable of miracles, but also capable of providing natural healing, changed circumstances, joy, contentment and even peace! I think the Psalmist recognizes this in Psalm 27:13 when he declares, “I know that I will live to see the LORD’s goodness in this present life.” [GNT]
Perhaps you can live without earthly hope while holding onto spiritual Hope, but you don’t need to. The character of God actually makes it almost impossible to truly Hope (in Him) yet have no hope (for this life).
What Hope Isn’t
I think there’s a misconception that if you’re not joyful or upbeat all the time you’ve lost hope. That’s not true. The realities of chronic illness may mean there is much to mourn and grieve. There are going to be difficult days, but we can feel this and accept it, and still have hope.
Jesus himself says in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart!” Why? Because we believe in One who cradles this world in His hands.
When our loved one holds onto both Hope and hope, they stand a much better chance of truly living, not just surviving. But in the midst of chronic illness, how do we give them the gift of hope, and how do we hold onto it ourselves?
How To Regain (and Renew) Hope
Practice feeling wonder
This heading sounds even more vague than talking about ‘hope’, doesn’t it? What I mean is this: renew your perspective. When we allow ourselves to be open to wonder it’s easier to believe in possibilities.
I’m not saying you have to climb a mountain or watch a sunrise. I am saying you need to (regularly!) take 10 minutes to just breathe. Look at the stars, google photos of incredible fish, or stop and admire something handmade (even if it’s just your dinner!). The world is not only full of disease or disaster — it is also beautiful, complex and incredibly rich. Take time to wonder — at the world, at God and at other people.
Allow yourself to stop and feel wonder.
Rejoice in others’ hope
It can be nauseating to read happy stories of healing or tales of overcoming despite the odds — particularly if your friend or family member hasn’t experienced their own miracle! But don’t let that stop you from seeking out and surrounding yourself with honestly written, well balanced, genuine stories of hope. There are resources for finding stories and writing your own at Chronic Joy.
I don’t just mean books, but also spoken stories. Listen well to the people you meet and practice rejoicing in their second-hand hope. Remind yourself that happily-ever-after endings can exist! Remind yourself that people are able to rejoice even in the midst of suffering. Remind yourself that individuals struggling with their health (and those caring for them!) can live fulfilling lives.
Allow yourself to stop and rejoice.
Share your hope
Sharing hope is a way to renew and increase it. That sounds paradoxical, but give it a try! There’s something special about choosing to speak your hope out loud. The very action of speaking changes something abstract into something concrete, something worth giving words to. It transforms what was a personal belief into something communal. Imagine the mutual encouragement which could come from the following exchange:
“How are you?”
“Well, to be honest, life is really hard right now, and sometimes it’s easy to believe things will never get better, but I try and remind myself of two things: I believe in a God who is able to bring happiness in the midst of darkness, and I believe that I don’t know what’s around the corner, and it could be good!”
Of course, you don’t have to use those exact words or preach a short sermon each time someone asks you how you’re doing! However you choose to express it, voicing hope can be a precious gift to your friends and to yourself.
Allow yourself to stop and express your hope.
How To Share Hope with Your Sick Friend (it’s as simple as ABC!)
So, now you’ve regained a bit of hope yourself and know what to do when you run dry. How can you share this hope with your ill loved one?
Hope is Action
Hope is not just words. It’s not just saying, ‘I believe’.
Hope is being there, day in and day out. When we keep choosing our loved one’s company (whether that’s in person, via Zoom or via text message) we are proving to them we haven’t given up hope. We believe their life is precious and worth our time, energy and love.
Hope is listening, and not hiding from even the worst stories and the longest list of bad side effects, because we believe their story is not yet over.
Hope is loving, even when someone is not always able to love back in actions or words.
Hope is rejoicing, choosing to accept each new day as a gift, because we do not know for certain that it will be a repeat of yesterday.
Hope is Being Willing to Wait
It’s relatively easy to be either all ‘up-beat optimism’ or ‘doom and gloom’. It’s tempting to respond to every struggle with a quick: ‘don’t worry, there’s possibilities’. But hope is more complex than that.
Hope is about looking for moments of happiness when life is riddled with struggles. True hope acknowledges possibilities and pain at the same time. Speaking true hope takes time and sensitivity — it’s not a quick fix (but it is worth it).
Hope is Company
Because hope is true for each of us, in whatever situation we’re in, it’s something we can talk about and do together. It’s not up to you to single-handedly save your loved one through the power of your own hope. Share what you’ve just read, recruit some friends and, most importantly, ask the Author of all Hope and hope, for help!