Lessons can be learned from illness

By  Lisa Petsche
  • January 30, 2008

Next week (Feb. 11) the Catholic Church will observe World Day of the Sick, instituted in 1992 by Pope John Paul II.

As a medical social worker, I’ve been privileged to journey with sick people and learn from them the lessons serious illness can teach those who are receptive. I would like to share some of these insights.

A health crisis, whether our own or a loved one’s, can be a jarring reminder of life’s fragility. For some people it serves as a wake-up call, prompting them to re-examine their values and priorities. Perhaps they’ve been working too much, at the expense of time with family. Or maybe they’ve neglected their health. In such cases, altering priorities and habits may improve their quality of life.

Sometimes illness leads people to discover a new sense of purpose, such as becoming a peer counsellor or fund-raising for a cure for the disease they’re living with.

One of the realities that surprises many people in crisis is that they are stronger than they knew. While they may not consider themselves particularly courageous, resourceful or resilient, through God’s grace (whether they recognize it as such or not) they rise to the occasion and do whatever is required. I learned that first-hand when my husband experienced two cardiac crises last year.

People who face life and death issues may approach their faith with a renewed commitment, deepening their relationship with their Heavenly Father, which helps to sustain them.

Illness also reminds people how important it is to have a supportive social network. This is a time when they find out who really cares. Sometimes the truth is disappointing, but more often than not ill people are overwhelmed by the kindness of others. Typically, relationships are strengthened as loved ones rally around the sick person.

Serious illness is humbling because it necessitates reliance on other people — professional caregivers as well as family and friends. For fiercely independent types and those who favour caregiving roles, it can be particularly difficult to accept help. They must learn to graciously allow people who care the opportunity to demonstrate this in tangible ways, just as they would want to do if the roles were reversed.

When a health crisis throws a wrench into people’s carefully planned lives, they realize they are not in control after all — another humbling lesson. God is ultimately in charge, which is good news, of course, because, no problem anyone may encounter is too big for Him to handle. They just need to turn it over to God in prayer and trust that He will ensure a positive outcome.

When a person’s health is threatened and their future is uncertain, the irritations of everyday life — such as household clutter, squabbling kids, telephone solicitations and traffic jams — suddenly pale in comparison. As a result, they stop sweating the small stuff.

Those who are ill also tend to be more open to recognizing God’s blessings. They don’t take much for granted. They learn to live in the present and appreciate the simpler things in life that make it enjoyable, such as music, a good cup of tea or coffee, the sights and sounds of nature and the company of family and friends.

The sobering truth that today is all we really have prompts many ill people and often also their loved ones to contemplate the big questions, such as, What is the meaning of life and What is my purpose?

Popular culture would have us believe we are valued primarily for external characteristics — our looks, our possessions and our measurable accomplishments — rather than for who we are as spiritual beings. We know it’s what’s inside that counts, but it’s easy to lose sight of this truth. Serious illness, which has a way of stripping life to the core, serves as a reminder.

What’s important, when all is said and done, is the extent to which our lives bear witness to God’s love and His presence in the world.

May God bless in a special way those among us who are living with illness, and may the rest of us do whatever we can to help ease their burden.

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