13 December 2017

Living with Terminal Illness

While there’s no shortage of advice on ways to achieve the perfect lifestyle and live happily ever after, there’s very little to tell us how to cope when life draws to a close. Naturally as Christians, we live in the hope that the Lord’s return will spare us the experience, but for those destined to exit the scene of time beforehand, death is inevitable. So how do we live with the prospect of dying? As with all difficult or emotional issues, most of us tend to avoid the subject, hoping it disappears. That is…….. until it becomes a personal reality.

Confined to a wheel chair and dependent on a portable oxygen tank, it’s obvious that Selina Thomson is seriously ill. Yet, her warm smile and positive attitude seems in stark contrast to the bleakness of her circumstances.

“When I was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease three years ago, I have to admit I was flabbergasted! I’d no idea there was a serious problem. The nightmare began when troublesome and persistent chest infections failed to respond to antibiotic treatment. My GP sent me to a specialist for further tests. I’ll never forget the day my husband held my hand and sobbed as the hospital consultant gave us the diagnosis. He used a lot of medical jargon but the only thing that really sank in was that my illness was incurable. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but I was simply speechless with shock.”

Selina began scouring the internet, researching her condition and hoping to find a more optimistic prognosis. In the end she had to accept the depressing reality. She might be living in an age when medicine was more advanced than at any other era, but regardless of medical genius, modern science couldn’t conjure up a cure for her. Selina knew, her only hope was a miracle.

“As Christians, prayer is a natural part of our family life. It doesn’t matter how large or small the problem, we bring everything to God. In the days and weeks immediately following my diagnosis, my closest friends and family got together every week-end and prayed that I would be healed. In my own private time with God, I too cried and pleaded for a cure.”

Before long, Selina began to notice a change had crept into her prayer life.

“It seemed that ‘being healed’ had become the sole focus of every communication with God. Everything else, including giving thanks had gradually slipped down the list of priorities and was swallowed up by my desperation to be healed. The fear of the future was obliterating any joy of the present. God knew all about my condition; there was no need to keep reminding him! If I was to restore any semblance of normality to our home, I had to find a way to accommodate the changes my illness introduced and live peacefully, despite the prospect of dying.”

Selina came up with the idea of keeping a diary.

“I was determined to record only the good things in my life and made a note of the blessings that formed some part of every day: even if it was something as simple as a lovely meal prepared by my mum, a chat with a friend, a word of encouragement from our pastor or a bear’s hug from my husband! I didn’t include the darker moments. I saw those as something to be endured but ignored. I refused to give them any credence or hold over my happiness. As time passed, I began to see that, regardless of what bad things came my way, I was still receiving more than my share of blessings!”

By focusing on the positive, Selina’s perspective changed. Instead of sad and despairing, she learned to live a day at a time. Although that isn’t to say she doesn’t have bad days.

“To say that an upbeat attitude erased all the pain and nightmares would be untrue. Believe me, there are times when depression and fear catches me off guard and I’m driven to despair. Apart from the physical debilitation, the thought of leaving my husband and children is, at times, unbearable.

But………I do my best not to give into these fears. After all nothing in this life is certain. Even a medical prognosis! God may not have healed me just yet but for all I know, He could heal me tomorrow or He could come to take us all home! We just don’t know.”

While Selina has managed to find peace in her circumstances, some family members continue to struggle.

“A diagnosis of terminal illness affects more than the individual. The emotional fallout spreads far beyond the immediate family circle: Aunts, uncles, cousins as well as friends and neighbours are all affected. In my own case, it saddens me that some of the people I love most in the world are in such turmoil.”

Since her diagnosis, Selina has made some wonderful new friends, especially in the medical profession. But she has also lost a few older ones.

“I think that visiting someone who has just been told their life expectancy is limited, must be incredibly difficult. For a start, what do you say? Finding words of encouragement isn’t exactly easy. I found that a few of my friends found it easier to simply stay away and, although initially upset, I do understand.”

Many of us find the emotional outpouring that accompanies tragic news or extreme grief a frightening experience. Perhaps there’s also a touch of embarrassment at our inability to cope. Maybe like Jonah who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to deal with the change of circumstances in his life, we prefer to run away and ignore them. Yet, as the individuals who have surrounded and supported Selina know, they are not the ones bearing gifts. With her determination to live and enjoy every moment she has given them a lesson in courage and faith. She has shown them how to deal with the prospect of dying. When asked to sum up, she has this to say:

“Whether or not this illness brings my earthly life to an end, I don’t know for sure. But I am certain that, the next one will be eternal!”

In order to protect family identity, names have been changed.

Lorraine Wylie