Living With a Chronic, Life-threatening Illness

I received a letter from a person whose chronic illness has put her at “death's door” many times over the years. She requested my thoughts on her ongoing illness and what she described as “this horrific situation that is called ‘life’ to some of us who dance close to death.”

Life is a terminal illness. The difference between someone in a healthy body and someone in an unhealthy body is that the person in an unhealthy body is reminded everyday that they are not going to live forever. Most people put the idea of dying as far away from themselves as possible. Most people live in a death denying cloud: “Other people die, not me.” You can’t do that.

When your body doesn't work for you because it is fragile or seriously ill, whether for a day or for years, you are constantly reminded that death awaits you. Your question is, “How do I live with that knowledge?” My answer is, “In the moment, in the present.” Most of us live either in the past or in the future. Few of us live in the moment even though the present is the only “time” that is real. The past is a memory and the future is an idea, neither is real.

Make each day count. Find joy in something each day. At night I ask myself “What did I trade a day of my life for today?” Sometimes I am not pleased with the answer.

I wrote A Time to Live as a guide to living with a life threatening illness. Whether that illness lasts for days or years I think the ideas apply.

Your body and its illness has put you in an extremely challenging situation but I will say to you that as long as you are breathing you are learning something. It is my belief that we are on this planet to learn and experience. This is our classroom. Your classroom is for the advanced learner. It seems harder than most. I believe that life is hard work so you need to break it down into one day at a time and then it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. “I am alive today, I can do -------(whatever you can do) today. I bless this day of life.” Sometimes the short term goal is noon and the long term goal is midnight. When you need to break it into smaller increments, do.

I don’t think life is about what happens to us or what situation we may find ourselves in but what we do with that situation, what we do with what life has given us. It is not the action but our reaction to that action that brings about learning and growth. Life has given you heavy challenges but rather than putting energy into the “horrific” life that you have look for meaning and purpose in what you can do and be with the energy and abilities that you do have. “This is the life and body that I have. What can I do with it that has purpose and meaning, that will bring me peace of mind, joy and fulfillment?”

I wish I had answers for you but that’s not how it works. Your answers and direction can only come from within you. Hopefully some of these words can be of use to you on your journey.

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