This weekend I had the privilege of attending an inspiring and educational convention, the type of event that leaves you physically exhausted after long days of instruction and interaction, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually fortified to handle whatever life throws at you.

I was particularly touched by the video portrayal of a famous historical account. There was a woman who had been suffering from a debilitating and embarrassing chronic illness – a “flow of blood” – for twelve years. Even though she had consulted physicians and specialist and spent all her money, her condition continued to worsen (Mark 5:25-27).

To make life harder for this woman, according to the customs of the time, her particular illness rendered her “unclean,” leading to social isolation and the humiliation of having to explain her condition to strangers in certain circumstances (Leviticus 15:19).

For many of you living with a chronic illness, this is how it can feel on a daily basis. In one scene, my heart broke as I watched this sick woman self-consciously approach her peers – three women who were sitting outside and casually chatting about the day’s events. Her body language was that of someone experiencing intense physical and emotional pain. Her shoulders were stooped, her face stricken, and her hands grasping a shawl to conceal her appearance.

Two of the women initially pulled away in discomfort, unsure why this stranger was approaching them. She was actually looking for directions to find a man she believed could heal her. As the women realized her intent, they were quick to speak up and offer advice and personal opinions in an attempt to be “helpful.” What impressed me most, however, was the response of the third woman. Her whole demeanor softened and you could feel the loving concern she felt for this suffering stranger.

How have you felt in similar situations? What kinds of reactions have you received?

Common Reactions to Suffering

Personally, I have encountered anything from contempt and annoyance to love and empathy (and everything in between). For the sake of this discussion, I’ve narrowed it down to the five most common.

Invalidation. Whether it is the dismissive, “But you don’t look sick,” or (my personal favorite) the presumption that someone understands what we’re going through because they, too, suffer from “tummy trouble,” invalidation in all its forms neglects to take the time to understand our unique experience. (I at least prefer a well-timed dose of bodily function humor if we’re not going to take this seriously.)

The key when dealing with these responses is to recognize as soon as possible that any need for empathy on your part will not be met by people in this mindset. Therefore, it is better not to waste energy hoping that if you explain things well enough, they will finally understand that IBD is not the same as IBS and migraines are not “just headaches.”

Fear. Other times people struggle with knowing how to respond because they have had relatively limited exposure to chronic illness and they are fearful of what they do not know. Is it contagious? Is it terminal? Will I have to watch you suffer? When my mother was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, one of her friends told her that she didn’t want to spend more time with her because she didn’t want to get too close to someone who was going to die.

Reactions like these hurt, but I wonder sometimes how much more pain the other person must be having – so much so that their fear prevents them from reaching out to those they love. One of the most beautiful qualities of those of you who are living with a chronic illness, in my opinion, is your ability to conquer your fears and to press forward in spite of them, because you are confronted with these on a daily basis and don’t have the luxury of avoiding them.

Advice. Still others seem to have no fear when confronted with a chronically ill person. In fact, they are bold and forward in their willingness to offer you their expertise (unsolicited, of course). I’ve written articles on this topic before, but the basic assumption in these instances is that you simply don’t know how to take care of yourself while the other person knows exactly what you need to do.

What you don’t always have the time or energy to explain is that if there is a pill, a tonic, a supplement, a superfood, an exercise, a massage, a cleanse, or a book that could possibly cure your disease, you’ve already investigated it.

You already know what you need to do to cope on a daily basis and what you would really like is for people to respect that.

Projection. Taking a step in the right direction is a sympathetic response. The listener closes their eyes and nods along as you share your story, communicating that, yes, they feel your pain, relate to your struggles, and know what you are going through with your disease. They grasp your hand and give it a squeeze to symbolize your membership in a very exclusive club.

While experiences like these can be very powerful – there is comfort in knowing we are not alone – sometimes a person can take sympathy a step too far when they begin to project. This means that they assume that you are feeling exactly what they are and it can be uncomfortable to try to take a step back and explain that we don’t see it quite the same way. When I attempt to do this with a particular acquaintance of mine, she insists that I only think I feel differently when, in fact, I must be in denial. What started out feeling like sympathy somehow looped back to invalidation and the realization that it must be handled similarly – by seeking empathy and emotional validation elsewhere.

Genuine Empathy

The conclusion of this weekend’s video presentation was a stunning example of genuine empathy and a model for all to follow. I am happy to report that the woman who was suffering from a chronic gynecological condition received the physical cure she was looking for on her journey. Even more remarkable was the emotional and spiritual healing she received along with it. She was told by the man who healed her, “Go in peace, and be in good health from your grievous sickness” (Mark 5:25-34).

While a complete physical cure may be out of reach for many of you at this point in time, don’t you long for compassion, for the acknowledgement that the symptoms and conditions you are enduring are “grievous” and demoralizing, that they aren’t merely a product of your overactive imaginations or the result of some inadequacy on your part?

How you long to have someone take the time to listen to you, not because you want to complain and not because you want advice, but simply because you want to be heard.

When someone is able to stay with you during those dark times, to cry with you, to say, “I’m so sorry you are dealing with this, it must be so hard. You are a strong person, but I still want to help. What can I do?” – these are the friends you hold the dearest. What responses do you find most helpful? Comment below to share your thoughts.