Helping Relationships Survive Illness
by Anne Fulton, M. Ed. 
UPdate Winter 2001

     If we're lucky, we might go through life relatively unscathed by the illness ours, or that of someone close to us.  Most of us are not so lucky, and all too soon we become acquainted with the exhaustion, heartbreak and disappointment illness can bring, not to mention the physical aspects of the illness.  We become quickly aware that illness can exact a great toll on relationships with those closest to the ill person.  The relationship, be it parent-child, partner, sibling, or whatever, is at risk of losing its original focus, and becoming lost in the illness.  Environmental illness (EI) is certainly no exception.

     One of the first issues to be faced by a person with EI is isolation.  This aspect of the illness can be very painful, and very lonely.  There can be a great range in how much a person with this illness may need to remain isolated from the scents and toxins of the world, but all degrees involve more time alone.  

     Those close to you may chose to spend more time with you.  As a result they will be missing out on a lot of social interaction too.  They may do things without you, which can be lonely for them.  Usually, the more intimate a relationship with an ill person is, the more likely the healthy person is to be isolated too.  I have noticed that the healthy spouse was often as isolated, in many respects, as the ill partner.  Isolation can be a tremendous strain on any relationship. The more creative ways that can be found to minimize the isolation, the happier everyone will be.  

      I know it can get pretty tiring hearing people say things like, "What did you learn from your illness?", especially on the days you can barely think or talk.  On the other hand, there is something to be said for being forced to slow down, stand apart from the world, spend a lot more time with ourselves than we used to be able to handle, and look at ourselves and the world from a new perspective.  This type of experience could conceivably be the breeding ground for wisdom.  Also, this new perspective may incline us to rework our relationships so that they are much more satisfying.

     Grief is a big part of the journey through any illness. This journey involves not only the person who is ill, but also the friends, family and anyone close to them.  So many hopes and dreams are lost.  With EI, we can lose where we live, where we socialize, what we normally eat, friends, our ability to think clearly and remember, our careers and jobs, our energy, self-image and more.  When someone is beset with an illness of protracted and indeterminate length, family and friends too can be thrown into a process of grieving.  This can be characterized initially by shock, denial, anger, and depression. Grieving is normal for all involved, and should not be
stifled.  It's okay and healthy to grieve.  The losses are real, be they things like not being able to bring your friends over because your mother is too ill, not being able to go out dancing with your spouse, or some days just not being able to lift your head off the pillow.   Acknowledging the grief validates the losses and also helps everyone eventually move through and beyond at least some of the grief.  Whether you are the person who is ill or someone close to them, not expressing
grief, and not having your grief acknowledged by someone else can result in a bottled up stew of feelings that can really damage a relationship.

       When someone becomes ill, and cannot do some of the things for themselves which they once did, those close by can become unwillingly forced into the position of caregiver.  Some adapt, some don't.   For someone who is the type of caregiver who tends to seek rescue projects, caring for someone with EI can burn you out.  If you don't want to be  a caretaker but force yourself to do it out of guilt or obligation, you can also burn out.  If you do burn out, you are likely to experience a lot of resentment.  And the last thing someone who is ill needs is your resentment.  Even if you are a willing caregiver, you must absolutely share the burden of care, 
whatever it is.  Invite others to be a part of this (easier said than done), and take time off to get support, enjoy social time, and feel good about yourself.  You need to be constantly renewed in order to constantly give.   

      It is also important that the person who is ill be aware that their caregiver is in a difficult position too.   The illness affects them also.  Let them get the support they need, encourage them to get it when they are not seeking it, don't make totally unreasonable demands, and if at all possible, try to involve caregivers whose caregiving is coming from a healthy and truly caring place.  And if the burden of 
care is damaging your relationship, get help.  Healing is harder to come by when your primary relationships aren't working.

      These are just three of the many factors that can affect relationships when illness is present.  Illness is definitely not easy.  At all.  For anyone.  Nor are relationships.  Yet relationships with another human being may be one of the greatest gifts we ever have .  When this is tested by illness, certainly the level of commitment to another
human being is tested, and all are challenged to work on a relationship which exists within new parameters.  There is no guarantee when we commit to a relationship of any type with another person that it will work out in any predictable or easy way.  Each of us is fully deserving of being in fulfilling relationship with others.  Sometimes the relationships we most want don't survive an illness, and it is the unexpected ones that grow to be the relationships that count.

      Illness has a way of separating out those who are able to really be there for us, and those who aren't.   However, with work, and seeking various supports, healthy, challenging and enriching relationships can and do work flourish within the context of illness.



Anne Fulton, M.Ed. (Counselling), CCC, RPC, CGC lives in the Halifax area, and offers individual and group counselling and workshops in the area of chronic illness/disability and other areas.

Untitled POEM
by Mark Nepo

Still, it is next to impossible
to do this alone.
We need the loving truth of others to be well.
Inevitably when one is thrust into life, 
into crisis, into transformation
without notice or instruction
some come with us 
and are forever changed
while others watch as we are forced out to sea.
It is the power of love
that enables those who come along
and in truth,
a language of experience is unearthed
that cannot be translated
to those who stay behind.

     From Wounded Healers, A Book of Poems by People Who Have Had Cancer and Those Who Love and Care for Them, edited by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., published by Wounded Healer Press, P.O. Box 273, Bolinas, CA 94924.  

     Mark Nepo recently published The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. Conari Press, ISBN 1-57324-117-2.