We spend our entire lives in relationships. For most of us, our existence is spent surrounded by family, friends, co-workers, students, classmates, and even strangers on the street as we pass by.
How many, though, face the loss of health AND the loss of fellowship at roughly the same time?
First, comes the diagnosis of disease. Then you hear that disease is terminal. No cure, no real timeline, just the knowledge that as time progresses, you will face more and more physical challenges, until one day… short of a miracle or scientific breakthrough that changes everything… one day, all the money and doctors in the world won’t be able to control what’s happening in your body. With the passing of time will come the passing of life.
At this moment, many thoughts go through your head. For this post, though, we’re going to focus only on relationships, or the loss thereof. The reality is, so many of those we know have no idea how to deal with bad news. Sure, they can handle passing bad news. But permanent bad news? News that does not improve over time, but worsens? Well, that’s too difficult for most people to accept. So what happens? Withdrawal. A certain percentage of those relationships simply disappear when you need them most, because folks just don’t know what to do.
Now if we were strong enough, we could become the initiator… the one to keep people close by. But just when we need that extra strength of mind, endless doctor appointments, blood tests, and body scans come. Chemotherapy and radiation come. Hospitalization comes. Then comes that turning point when we’re told our survival is limited. Energy levels simply cannot sustain a lifestyle of reaching out… initiating contact with everyone… asking for help. Our strength will be spent working through the physical and emotional stress of the day. Our body will not have the energy it once did to multitask, to think clearly, to brush away the fog of depression and be that cheerful point of connection to the world. We will be using all our energy to simply live, breath and think.
This must be accepted. We will not be able to be in control over all that was once so easy.
As for our circle of people. They now have to deal with death. And let’s face it, people don’t do death well. It can be hard for someone who has never faced it to know anything at all about how to be that supportive person, to sit by our side and offer comfort. Even family members and those we care for the most will be at a loss. Coming to a place of acceptance on our condition is not easy for them. You and I have already done the “DABDA” steps. (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.) Maybe we’ve done them 20 times that day. But for others, getting stuck at Denial is entirely reasonable. They’re not “in” it. They don’t feel the disease in their gut. It’s so easy for them to believe, “Oh, so-and-so will get better. Just have to stay positive about it all and send some good vibes their way.” In some cases, that’s called Hope. But for terminal patients, it’s called Denial.
Most of those in our closest circles may not come to a place of Acceptance until long after we are gone. Delayed acceptance happens. Frequently. It’s okay. We have no control over how long it takes others to process difficult emotions. So let go and give them space.
Where does this leave us? In the absence of connection, in the absence of knowledge and training on loss, there is distance. Distance in relationships is the fuel for loneliness.
In my journey, loneliness has become my greatest hardship. Many days are spent on my own for hours on end. I feel more and more that the loneliness we experience while terminally ill, is simply a way to prepare us for the solo voyage from this life to the next. Part of the process is learning how to do that trip by yourself. It is a ticket for one.
But, there are things we can do to break that barrier and maintain some of the most important relationships.
First of all: Be. This may be tough for those like me who are domineering. Stop trying to change anything about anyone. Simply find joy in being present in the room with other people. We’ve spent a good portion of our lives wishing for all kinds of things for those closest to us. We had our chance to try and change them. Now we have to stop all that nonsense and simply enjoy being with the people we love… just as they are. Don’t let anything wreck the moment. Give up frustration… for fellowship. Give up anger… for acceptance. Give up control… for releasing the moment to whatever happens. At least try. Our participation is much less important than our presence. Being there in the midst of others is FAR better than not being there. Even if they don’t talk much with you, just “be” around others. That’s our challenge.
Second: Communication. If at all possible, let someone else take care of updating the world about your condition. They will not only be more objective than you are (and closer to the truth), but the mere fact that they are doing this act of compassion for you will encourage others to act too. They’ll see how easy it is to do something small that makes a big difference in your care and support. When I was first diagnosed, my son stepped forward and created a website for fundraising and awareness. He did it all. It was successful far beyond what we imagined. Everyone got involved from my place of work, to my wife’s place of work, to our friends, and even folks we didn’t know. I’ve been doing my own updates lately, but it’s not the same at all. Trust me. Ask someone else take the lead on this, and let them tell the world why you are worthy of their care and attention. It works better that way. Really.
Third: Reconciliation. If you have wronged anyone, or if anyone has wronged you, by all means use this valuable time we have to make things right. Apologies are good. Forgiveness is better. Traveling to see long lost friends may be a significant step in your emotional well-being. (Or ask them to travel to see you.) Working things out with broken relationships is important. It gives back what the world has robbed you of. It can be scary, but it is easier than we imagine.
For me, I had been out of ministry for ten years. Going back to my old church, seeing the faces of people I hurt ten years ago when I left ministry was a fearful thought. So many open wounds had never healed. But from the moment we arrived there, we began to see a slice of heaven come to earth. It was like we never left. All the good memories that happened for so many years had washed over the short time of division and confusion. In just a moment of willingness to be together, God restored our love for each other, our friendships, and our fellowship. It was miraculous. It was a taste of being reconciled together in eternity.
Now, there may be some relationships that just don’t get worked out. For me, it was with the senior pastor who sent me off into ministry. Of all the men in this world, he meant more to me than any. It was his church where I met and married my wife. It was that church where I was trained in serving God and man. It was where I was ordained. It was that fellowship where I was discipled and learned how to live as a man of integrity, serving God in my heart and loving my family as myself. So much good, yet, he was the one person I reached out to who seemed too busy to make things right… to bring an end to years of silence… to restore fellowship. I understand though. I’m just one of many thousands of people touched by him. He seemed busy because he is busy.
So when the impossible comes up, just do your best. Then it’s out of your control and you can let go, forgive, and move on. Who knows what may happen later, maybe even after our time on earth has ended. Many great people were not respected until they had been dead many years. We may not see reconciliation everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come eventually. Do your part. Live in hope. Die in hope.
Fourth: Do. In our weakened physical state, if there is something you CAN do, then do it. When I am tired, I rest. When I have strength and energy (usually in the mornings), I go on my errands. I’ll go to the job site where I’m on leave of absence to say hello… to remind everyone I’m thinking of them and tell them NOT to wait for my calls, but to reach out to me whenever they’re free. There’s a hundred of them and one of me. I need their energy right now. I go to the grocery store for my wife. I’ll hit Home Depot for small, doable things I can manage in keeping the house working (nothing involving chainsaws or things with sharp edges!). Big projects are off the list, but little things to keep the place going… when possible, I’ll do some of those. If you want more, volunteer somewhere. One day a week or whatever works. Giving yourself in the service of others is the fastest way to conquer loneliness. Period. (A topic for another post.) We just have to learn to serve in small doses… as God allows.
Fifth: Mind & Body. Journal. Write. Meditate. Pray. Do yoga. Go for a walk. Ride a stationary bike. Get a massage or make a physical therapy appointment. (Whatever activities your doctor allows.) Our bodies are under attack. Light exercise, stretching, and eating well reward the body for the fight it’s entered into on our behalf. We only have one body, so help it out. Make friends with it. Listen to what it is trying to tell you. Who knows? All those billions of cells may know how to heal themselves despite the odds.
Our minds are also under attack. A good way to put off depression caused by loneliness is to do something with the mind. Get a counseling appointment. It clears your head. Read books that apply to your condition, and find some that are simply FUN. Watch a movie. It can make you laugh. I read, write, and go to a small bible study where I can share ideas with others (my high point of the week for socializing). Activities with low stress and immediate feedback are usually quite rewarding.
Sixth: Marriage. Take care if you are still married. Love your spouse, and use these days to make sure they know your love. Taking care of us is hard, and they are fatigued. Be sensitive to that, and simply overlook anything that’s wrong. If it can be easily worked out, fine. But we don’t want to spend our last few months here on earth with any kind of disharmony at home (#JustNotWorthIt). Value joy and peace above right and wrong. We just don’t have time anymore to make everything right. So forget about it. Love unconditionally and enjoy the time you have with your lifelong companion. There may be moments when this is not easy, but it is certainly the second most important thing that needs doing. The only task that tops this is next…
Seventh: God. “On the seventh day, God rested.” Find a place for God and learn to rest in Him. There are many believers who can introduce you to Jesus if that’s what you need. Those of us who are terminal are pretty much promised that we will finally discover what it means to leave this world and stand before our Creator. I don’t trust most of what Christian teachers tell me about the after life. Everyone who wrote about heaven in the Bible shares their story and goes on to say how dimly we see eternity, how difficult it is to understand it in this mortal body, how indescribable it was. They did their best to put heavenly visions into words they knew, but implied that we will not fully know until we arrive there. That’s why it’s called a journey of faith. But, we do know we will meet our Maker. We want to be ready for that, and it really is quite easy to seek Him now. He loves us so much and there’s nothing we’ve ever done that is not forgivable in Christ. So go for it. Make things right with God, and then find peace in that relationship.
I hope these points are helpful in facing and conquering loneliness. As for me, these seven steps are most certainly a work in progress. But as I get better at each one, things improve. It’s like learning a new piano sonata. It takes a lot of practice to get things right. Just keep at it!
One closing thought. If the number of people you interact with drops as time passes and your condition worsens, don’t worry. That can happen. Stay thankful for those who stay by your side. It only takes one person to have a companion. And as you read this, know that I am here too. We can be companions together.
– Sanford Kravette