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3 Things the Chronically Ill Wish Their Loved Ones Knew

These feelings may go unspoken.

Perhaps this piece should be written in the first person; it reflects what I want my loved ones (family and close friends) to know about me. These people have done so much for me, and I’m deeply grateful. I simply want them to know a few things about how I feel.

After hanging out online for over a dozen years with other people who are chronically ill, I feel comfortable speaking for all of us here. When it comes to chronic pain, illness, and loved ones, one size doesn’t fit all (as is true with all things in life), but here are the top three things I think most people with chronic pain want their loved ones to know about them:

1. The grief we feel over the life we lost may re-emerge now and then ... indefinitely.

One life event that appears on all versions of “life stress scales” is serious illness. It’s considered a grief-producing event, like other major life losses such as the loss of a relationship due to separation or death. Until I became chronically ill, I had no idea that the people I knew with ongoing health struggles were grieving. Now I know that there’s a lot to grieve over—the loss of the ability to be as productive as we once were, the loss of friends, the ability to take part in cherished activities, and independence.

Grief comes in waves and can arrive unexpectedly. One moment, we can feel accepting of the changes in our lives. The next minute, we can be overcome by sadness. A simple interaction can trigger it: For example, I thought I was done grieving about my lost career. It’s been over a decade since I had to stop working due to illness. Then, one day, I ran into a former colleague who described all the changes that have taken place at the law school where I taught. To my surprise, a wave of grief overcame me, and I had to work hard not to break out in tears in front of her. This happened even though, if I recover, I don't plan to return to my old job. It's a thing of the past.

The grieving process I’ve gone through as a result of chronic illness has been one of the most intense of my life. Odd as it may sound, it’s been more intense than the grief I felt when my mother died. She lived across the Atlantic and we rarely saw each other. She had a long, good life. I was sad to lose her and I grieved, but it was not as intense as the grieving I’ve gone through over the upheaval in my life due to chronic illness.

2. We can feel as if we’re letting you down even though you’ve repeatedly told us that we’re not.

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I have two close friends whom I try to see each week. Both of them have told me that if I’m not feeling well enough to visit, I should cancel and should not feel bad about it. And yet, whenever I have to cancel, I feel as if I’m letting them down—even though I believe them when they say that they don’t want me to feel bad.

Related to this feeling of letting loved ones down is that we may apologize for being sick and in pain even though it’s not necessary. I find myself apologizing to my husband, my children, and close friends for being unable to join in activities with them, even though they’re not expecting me to go beyond my limits and don’t want me to.

I’ve decided that it makes me feel better to apologize. It’s my way of saying to them, “I know that my inability to do a lot of things and the unpredictability of how I’ll feel on any given day is no fun for you, either.”

3. Being chronically ill can be embarrassing.

I wrote about embarrassment in a piece called “Are You Embarrassed?” In it, I said that the primary reason people are embarrassment-prone is that they’ve set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and then judge themselves negatively when they can’t possibly meet those standards.

We don’t have to look far to see the unrealistically high expectation and the negative self-judgment that are at work here: We don’t think we should be chronically ill. We live in a culture that repeatedly tells us we should not be sick or in pain. In the United States alone, 130 million people suffer from chronic illness. My loved ones accept my illness, and yet I occasionally still find myself embarrassed in front of them about the fact that I’ve been sick for so many years.

Sometimes guilt creeps in because I can feel like I’ve let them down. There’s no rational reason for me to feel guilty. None of my loved ones have ever said anything to me to suggest they think I’ve let them down. Still, I experience guilt, the painful feeling that I’ve been bad. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, says, “The mind has no shame.” He sure was right! I hope you’re able to hold his comment lightly and even laugh sometimes at your shameless mind.

There’s a second reason that being chronically ill can be embarrassing. In addition to the cultural messages that value being healthy and fit, I feel as if my health condition should be kept private. We keep many other intimate details of our lives private; why not chronic pain and illness? Most of us don’t have the luxury of keeping our medical conditions private. We have to explain to our loved ones why we can’t do activities, must cancel plans at the last minute, or need to suddenly sit down or leave a gathering early. Instead of keeping this intimate part of our lives private, we’re forced to talk about it, which can be embarrassing.

Third, most of us cherished the independence that came with good health. We find it embarrassing to have to continually depend on loved ones to do so many things for us, whether it's cleaning, shopping, or supporting us financially. I know many chronically ill people who have been forced to move back into their childhood homes because they’re unable to care for themselves or can no longer afford to live independently. Having to tell others that you had to move in with your parents can not only be a source of embarrassment but worse—shame.

We appreciate so much all that our loved ones have done to educate themselves about our medical conditions, to take care of us, and to support us. These are just three additional things that that we want them to know. If you'd like to see my piece on what those with chronic pain and illness want to hear others say to them, click here.

You might also like "4 Tips for Dealing With Unsolicited Health Advice."

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