There is a well-known truth that illness does not only affect the individual who is afflicted but has a profound impact on their family and friends as well. The sicker I got, the more pronounced were the reactions of the people around me. Often I was surprised and occasionally I was disappointed by those I loved. What I eventually came to see was that the way they treated me rarely had much to do with me at all. Illness and dying are not areas of comfort for most people. Some people were able to transcend their discomfort and reach out to me in astounding ways. Others retreated, unable to bypass their own fears. Everyone projected onto me their beliefs and acted in the ways they imagined they would like someone to behave toward them in a similar situation.
When I was very sick and was believed to be dying, I had family members and friends who came forward in ways that were truly remarkable. I can’t tell you if they were scared or uncomfortable because, if they were, they didn’t show it. They met me where I was and engaged me in conversations about saying goodbye and how I wanted to be remembered.
One friend in particular drove from another town to visit me once a week. She did not arrive with expectations to be entertained or to even have a good talk. She brought things to occupy herself, like sewing materials or knitting. She would sit with me in the living room and let me lead the day. Sometimes we would talk at length about life and death. Sometimes we would laugh about superficial, silly things. Sometimes we barely spoke at all and I would watch TV and nap while she read her book or worked on her latest craft project. I always looked forward to her visit and found her willingness to sit with whatever came up to be brave and admirable.
There were people in my life who carried with them a thick lens of their own reality. It was difficult for them to see beyond that lens and, at times, this made me feel uncomfortable and judged. I had one relative in particular who approached me with great pity in his eyes. He told me that when he saw me, so sickly and frail, his reaction was to wonder why God had let such a thing happen to me. Why was I being punished so?
I attempted to explain to him that I didn’t feel punished. In fact, I felt the opposite. I felt connected to the Divine and at peace. The pity in his eyes did not wash away, no matter how much I told him of my experience. Our very different perspectives made it difficult for me to be around him and I certainly could no longer look him in the eye.
There were people in my life who could not overcome their own discomfort with illness and dying. They were at one time very close to me, but as I got sicker they withdrew from my life more and more. At first I felt angry and abandoned by their retreat, but eventually I grew to believe that their fears outweighed their love. It hurt too much to be around me. They had not yet accepted their own mortality and therefore were unable to accept mine.
I had one friend who completely disappeared when I got very ill. She stopped returning calls and never came to visit. After my transplant, she quickly resurfaced and wanted to be friends. She acted as though nothing had happened and no time had passed between our girly gossip sessions. I tried to let her back in my life but I had lost a part of my trust in her. Eventually, I stopped returning her calls and our friendship fizzled out.
Today, I have a very different outlook on these stories than I did at the time. There is no way to predict how those you love might react to an illness. What I discovered was that I had a certain expectation of how I should be treated and that expectation was rarely the reality. Looking back, I can see that my expectations were also entirely unfair. To expect everyone to be at ease in such a hard circumstance is unreasonable. To expect people to act exactly the way you would like them to is absurd.
I expected compassion from those in my life but what I failed to do was also give compassion. I somehow placed myself in the center of the universe (that is easy to do when facing serious illness) and forgot that others had deep feelings of their own. I felt entitled to some particular kind of attention and when I didn’t get it I allowed myself to feel victimized.
Some people will step forward. Some people will step back. Some people will judge. What was hard for me to see was that all of those actions are results of love. Just as those facing illness must receive love and compassion, so must those dealing with people facing illness. Just because you are sick, does not mean you can’t be the one to reach out to another.
While it was easiest to see the gifts brought by those willing to sit with me in my tiny illness cocoon, I see now the value of the lessons brought by those unable to do so. I am grateful to all the people in my life, no matter how their love chose to manifest.