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The Experience of Serious Illness

May 9, 2009 | by

Caregiving is never easy, but it is an opportunity to help the patient in a profound and meaningful way.

An excerpt from "CARING, A Jewish Guide to Caregiving" (Jerusalem Publications, distributed by Feldheim) by Naomi Brudner. Taking care of or even 'just visiting' an ill person can be an extremely complex and difficult task. CARING was written to help us live up to that task in the fullest, most meaningful way possible.

A person who is seriously ill is going through a life experience that touches and moves him not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. His whole life has been changed and perhaps threatened. In most cases, a seriously ill person can't help but think about the deeper, more serious aspects of life, as well as the deeper parts of himself, his relationships, and other aspects of his immediate life.

Questions arise in his mind: "What is going to happen?" "Why is this happening to me?" "Have I done anything to cause this?" "Can I do anything to cure this?" "Does God love me?" "Do I love life?" "Do I want life?" "Do I love myself?" "Is there anything in my way of life or in my relationships that was a factor in bringing on this disease?" "Can those aspects of my life be changed?" "Will I ever be well again?"

You can help enable the patient to find and create positive emotional and spiritual meaning during his illness.

The questions are endless, and the answers are not always immediately available. If the patient has negative thoughts and feelings regarding his illness, such as blaming himself; or, if he is aware of a lack of will to live because of difficulties in his life, this is where you as a loving caregiver can help. You can help enable the patient to find and create positive emotional and spiritual meaning during his illness. As a loving caregiver, you have the opportunity and the privilege to help the patient have positive thoughts and feelings including love, faith, trust, hope, and joy. You can help the patient to get in touch with his own highest beliefs, values, and aspirations so that during his illness his mind and heart will help him rather than harm him.

Illness is not a one-way street. It is not an irrevocable sentence. It is a process made up of many factors. Some are painful, some are negative, and some can be positive and meaningful. You as a loving caregiver can help the patient to get in touch with all that is or can be positive and meaningful in his life.


There is deep meaning to suffering, as there is to everything in life. However, the onlooker, or in our case the caregiver, as well as the person suffering, may not know what the meaning is. God's reckonings are beyond our understanding. Even though we might glimpse one aspect of the meaning of suffering, we cannot understand suffering in its entirety.

When we have contact with people who suffer, it is important to remember that there is meaning to their suffering, though we may have no idea what that meaning is.

People who are in the midst of suffering, or caregivers whose loved ones or clients are suffering, often have an automatic negative reaction to the subject of the meaningfulness of illness. When they hear the concept of making illness meaningful, they often instinctively feel uncomfortable. They wonder if the speaker isn't empathetic enough or isn't realistic enough. Their attitude is often: "When a person is suffering, just try to help him get better or to relieve his suffering. This is not the time to think or talk about meaning."

When a person is seriously ill, the question of meaning in his life is of tremendous importance.

Often this response comes because so many of us are out of touch with our inner beings, our inner realities. However, the truth is that when a person is seriously ill, the question of meaning in his life is of tremendous importance to him, perhaps now more than ever, for his life has been significantly changed -- and perhaps even endangered. His experiences, his relationships, his plans and dreams have all been altered in a most drastic way. Not only the quality of his life but perhaps even the length of his life is also in question.

An onlooker, a caregiver, often would prefer not to talk or think about meaning because it is such a deep, core, true issue for himself as well as for the patient, and unfortunately many of us are used to ignoring or skirting around such deep issues. When we are healthy, we may think or feel that we have the luxury of being able to put off thinking about meaning in our lives, though this is a serious mistake. For the patient who is seriously ill, meaning in life is a topic of utmost importance and relevance to him. He may or may not be aware of this. If he isn't, you as a loving caregiver can help him become aware of it, and you can help him find meaning. Then, though he is limited and also probably suffering as a result of his illness or disorder, you can help him to have a meaningful life -- from that very moment -- even if he remains hospitalized. Discussing the meaning and value of life and different aspects of life is not only important for the patient's recovery or to help him have a more meaningful life after he recovers; it is important because it will give him a more meaningful life now.

Just thinking and talking about serious, relevant topics is already more meaningful and valuable than discussing what the patient had for breakfast or whether the nurse was pleasant. The latter are also important topics for the patient to discuss if he desires to do so, but in addition, his mind and soul yearn to be immersed in more spiritual subjects. He may not be aware of it, but deep within himself every Jew yearns to be elevated, and this is especially true in times of suffering.

By mentioning and perhaps discussing meaningful topics, you can help the patient to have a meaningful life right now despite the limitations his illness has caused. If the patient is already spiritually aware, you can help him by being there with him and reinforcing what is important to him. Following his lead, you can journey together with him or her on spiritual paths that will take him beyond and above his suffering. Regardless of the spiritual level and awareness of the patient, if you feel able and competent, you can help him to get in touch in one of the deepest ways possible with God's loving instruction to each of us to "choose life." You as a loving caregiver can help the person whose life has been changed by serious illness to understand, want, and implement that choice to the best of his ability.

Countless religious Jews have shared their worldview with seriously ill patients and were responded to with appreciation and deep satisfaction, if not joy. One should be careful not to speak of suffering as atonement for sins to a person who does not show interest in hearing such ideas. Especially when speaking to a seriously ill nonreligious Jew, a religious Jew should be careful to share only positive, reassuring ideas such as that God loves him and is waiting for the patient to turn to Him, that there is a better world without suffering, and so on, depending on what is appropriate for the particular person. Nothing that could weaken a person in any way should be mentioned.

My mother was an incredible woman. She went through the Holocaust in her youth and retained her faith and love of God during and afterward. When she saw her brothers slipping away from Torah and mitzvot after the Holocaust, she did everything a human being could do to bring them back, and she succeeded. She married and raised a wonderful observant family and did acts of kindness constantly.

During her last illness, I heard well-meaning visitors tell her not to feel bad about her terrible suffering, because it was an atonement for her sins. Who asked them? What good did they think they were doing? Why didn't they just mind their own business? They may have meant well, but their comments were out of place.

Mentioning religious subjects is a sensitive issue. On the one hand it is important, but on the other hand one must be careful not to say the wrong thing. Your job as a loving caregiver is to add as much as possible to the patient's inner peace, strength, and will to live. Remember: As caregivers, we are trying to restore the patient's health, not worsen it. If the patient says that his suffering is a punishment or atonement, you do
not have to negate that. But it would be wonderful to add, "Though we can't fathom God's ways, I do know that He loves you," or "I know that He is merciful and compassionate and wants to forgive us," or "You're always His beloved child." The main thing for you as a caregiver in this situation is to think before you talk, not to say anything negative, and whenever possible to say something positive and reassuring. Before you speak to the ill person, ask yourself, "Is what I am about to say appropriate?" Think well before you answer.

An excerpt from "CARING, A Jewish Guide to Caregiving" (Jerusalem Publications, distributed by Feldheim) by Naomi Brudner.

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