Overcoming Isolation In Illness

young black man blowing nose(BlackDoctor.org) — During a recent trip back to the East Coast for Thanksgiving, my wife and I both became sick with the flu. Arriving home, we spent a week in bed, drinking gallons of hot tea and endless pots of soup. With both of us sick, conducting more normal lives became extremely difficult.

Getting sick can sometimes feel like entering a state of suspended animation. The outside world continues along its usual trajectory, but you’re frozen in time, ostensibly cut off from the rest of society, stuck in your world of self care, fatigue and illness.

The Initial Isolation of Illness

The isolation of illness is significant and life altering. In the event of cancer, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, diabetes or other illnesses, the sick individual begins to experience loss from the very moment they receive their diagnosis. At the moment the doctor utters a few dreaded words (for example, “You have cancer”), life as it was known ceases to exist and a new life seems to be born.

An individual living with an illness like cancer is immediately isolated from others simply by virtue of the fact that the illness itself creates a gulf between those who have the disease and those who do not. No matter how deeply those without the illness may empathize with those struggling with the disease, there is no true understanding for those who have not experienced the reality, and this can be a lonely place for the sick individual.

Social Isolation

Being ill often brings significant changes to the social life. Travel can become challenging—if not impossible—and social gatherings can actually be dangerous, especially for those stricken with diseases that compromise the immune system.

When a person becomes ill, their lives often begin to revolve around doctor’s appointments, medication schedules and treatment, and while some friends and family may understand, others may not be so generous. Persons living with life-altering illnesses can often find themselves with a significantly shrunken “social atom”, with some friends simply disappearing altogether, and others finding it difficult to adapt to the ill person’s new schedule and way of life.

Overcoming Isolation

In the midst of serious illness, relationships, connection, honesty and communication are most crucial. While it’s true that many of us cannot comprehend the experience of the sick or dying, we can practice open-hearted listening, patience, empathy, and the ability to simply be with the sick person while accepting them at face value.

Often, when someone is sick, we can tend to withdraw out of a feeling of helplessness. Conversely, we can sometimes lean in too much, offering unwanted advice that the sick person is not ready or willing to hear. We often say “Let me know if you need anything,” but then fail to follow up on our offer, no matter how sincere it may have been.

What we can we? We can simply let the sick person know that we care about them, that we are available, and that we understand that they may feel isolated at a time when they need us the most. We can also communicate to the sick person exactly what we are available to do and when (ie: shopping on Wednesdays, housecleaning on weekends, and for phone calls in the evenings). Giving concrete examples of what we are willing and able to do gives the individual who is not well a clear indication of how we are able to be of service. This can be very helpful, though we may need to repeat our offer as time goes by.

In the end, it’s all about connection. We all want to be connected, and none of us want to be lonely and isolated. In sickness or in health, human interaction binds us together. When someone is living with illness, the power of honesty, empathy, and clear communication cannot be overestimated.

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