What is truly helpful to a person facing a long-term illness? How can you provide more meaningful care and better meet the person’s needs? As a three-time cancer survivor and through my experiences as a psychologist and Christian life coach, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over the years.
In 1988 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was given a 2 percent chance to be alive in ten years. At the time, my son was eight years old. I went through chemotherapy, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant, which saved my life but also just about took it. After that I faced a number of years of recovery. Then in 1997 I had an ovarian tumor removed. Three years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer, stage 4, and have been getting chemo for that and am currently in remission.
1. Understand common fears, questions, and emotions
As you minister to people facing a long-term illness, you’ll encounter people at different places on their journey: their journey through the illness and their faith journey. The emotions and questions they struggle with will vary, but having an idea of common concerns of people with long-term illnesses will help you better understand their mind-set and how to care for them. Here are some questions, concerns, and fears that people might have, based on my own experiences and those of people I’ve ministered to.
Fears and questions people have:
“What’s going to happen to those I leave behind? My spouse? My kids?”
“How can I best prepare the people I’m leaving behind?”
“How can I leave a legacy?”
“What exactly is going to happen in the days to come?”
“How painful is this going to be?”
“How am I going to deal with this?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have enough faith.”
“How can I be at peace with God?”
Emotions people struggle with:
- Feelings of aloneness (even if the person has good support and Jesus in his or her life, the individual is the one who has to go through this)
2. Know what’s not helpful
Sometimes people are quick to offer “help” that is not actually helpful.
Platitudes Don’t give them a platitude. Don’t give them a little Scripture and think that’s going to cure everything, because sometimes we get tired of hearing platitudes. I can remember one time during the transplant somebody said, “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” and that made me so angry. Not that you can’t give Scriptures, but you’ve got to be careful.
Efforts to fix the person’s problems What’s not helpful? People who tried to fix it. A lot of times as a life coach I feel the need to fix things. I often have to remind myself, “My job is not to fix problems, but to listen carefully, ask questions, help them clarify issues, and guide them to God and His power and His wisdom.”
Recommendations of specialists/diets When people want to tell you a certain supplement to take or a certain doctor you should go to, I didn’t find that helpful, especially when I had God’s peace about the procedure/treatment I was taking.
Stories of people doing well The other thing I did not find helpful on certain days, and this depends on where you’re at, was stories about people who were doing really well with cancer. I was feeling so sick at times, it just made me feel like more of a failure because I wasn’t doing well and they were telling me about all these people who were doing well.
Negative stories and people What never helps is stories of people who died these awful, painful deaths. If the people facing a long-term illness are around negative, toxic people, they’ve got to distance themselves as much as possible, because they don’t have the resources—the physical, mental, and emotional resources—to fight off this negativity.
3. Know what’s helpful
Empathy and compassion When I found out I had a recurrence of breast cancer years ago, I was devastated. The doctor had left the room, and his assistant was still with me. I took one look at her, and I started sobbing, “I want to live to see my son graduate from high school,” and I just kept repeating that. What she did for me in that moment was, she didn’t tell me I would live to see Kyle graduate, she didn’t tell me I wouldn’t, she truly had empathy, she truly had compassion, just the way she looked at me. I remember her getting a box of tissues, and listening, and handing me one tissue after the other. She compassionately listened without trying to fix it, because we both knew she couldn’t.
Connecting with people right where they are It’s being there in the moment with what they’re experiencing, without the need to fix it, without the need to make them someone different. It’s just accepting where they are, who they are, and just being with them.
What I learned from the experience with the nurse that day is the powerful impact that one person has when that person really connects with you. It makes all the difference in the world when somebody’s willing to connect with you right where you are.
Take the lead from the people you’re visiting Let them take the lead rather than going in with an agenda. What is on their heart? If they want to talk about death, then talk about death. If they want to talk about their loved ones, whatever. Sometimes they want to be funny. Somebody talked about visiting a grandmother and she just wanted to tell jokes. Well, that’s what the grandmother wanted to do, and you just have to accept that’s who she was in life and that’s how she wants to be at the end of her life.
“Never underestimate the power of empathy.”
Never underestimate the power of empathy. Be willing to mourn with those who are mourning. Be willing to connect your heart to their hearts because it’s that connection, that heart connection, that can counteract those needles, and that nasty medicine, and all the machines they are hooked up to, and reminds them there’s good in this world, and it’s Jesus using you to light up their way. And the light of Christ is so powerful that you just can’t discount it.
If you meet them where they are right now, then maybe your chances of them listening or being open to hearing about how God can meet their spiritual needs are much greater. But if you aren’t willing to meet them right where they are right now, it’s that closed connection rather than openness.
4. Check your heart before you visit
Perhaps you’ve wondered how to communicate your sincere care to a person with a long-term illness—making sure the person realizes you’re not just “doing your duty” in stopping by, but that you truly care. The fact is, I don’t think you can fake it. If you honestly care, it’s honestly communicated. Even the most stumbling people come out as caring. They might say some stupid things, but the person who is ill picks up authenticity at the gut level.
It’s really an issue of a heart check for the pastor before going into the room, and it’s also an issue of what kind of energy you’re bringing. Are you bringing the light of Christ? Either we bring energy or we take energy from people. So what are you bringing into that room, because there’s that spiritual presence that you might not even be aware of. Sometimes I think we can get so caught up in our work that we lose sight of the question, “Are we carrying the spirit of Christ?”
“Either we bring energy or we take energy from people.”
Also remember that the person you are visiting is still alive and is able to live purposefully and passionately, making the remaining time count for Jesus. Be careful not to get bogged down by thoughts of the “end” and forget the “here and now.” (If the timing is right, and the person is physically able and willing, you might encourage him or her to care for others by praying for people, sending encouraging text/email messages to people, sharing the gospel with those who stop by, or showing kindness to those who provide medical care.)
5. Know how to start a discussion about spiritual matters
Be prayerful about the timing, but a question you could ask is, “Tell me about your experience with God in the midst of this.” That can open up a whole lot of things; for instance, one person said to me, “I am so angry with God; I’m embarrassed to be in church.” She had never expressed that to anyone but had held on to her anger for years. Just sharing how furious she was with God and what He had allowed to happen enabled her to begin letting go of those toxic feelings. She decided to journal her honest feelings, and a week later she was a completely different person.
There is no doubt that for some people, their experience with long-term illness drives them straight to the arms of God. They report experiencing God in a powerful, intimate way. But others respond with anger and doubt as they wrestle with many unanswered questions.
Authentic care makes a world of difference to those who are sick and overwhelmed and aren’t sure they can hang on another day. I pray that these principles will help you provide meaningful care to people with long-term illness. Share this article with your care and home group leaders, too, to aid them in their ministry.