Living & Learning: coming to terms with illness in others

It is many years ago now – in fact more than “threescore and ten” – since I first become aware of the unwelcome, bewildering and disruptive power of life-threatening illness and its impact upon the family. Indeed, I was still well within ‘single figures’ and shortly to attend primary school for the first time, when, with ‘Damoclean’ suddenness, it happened on that first occasion. Without any form of prior warning almost every aspect of family life seemed, as I later perceived it, to be placed under a kind of siege. Sadly – and with relative suddenness – the death of my eldest sister from meningitis swiftly followed and in an instant, that gladdening contentment with its comforting assurances, daily drawn from a settled and stable family life (I was the youngest of six) seemed suddenly to fade and, for a time, disappear “like snow off a dyke”. My mother’s very evident distress and that of other family members, especially, I remember, as night drew on, only served to add to such overriding early feelings of change, loss and confusion; and as I, in a word now recall it, of injustice. Moreover, it did for a time, as I remember it, become unsettling and threatening in another sense. If sickness and death could so quickly, unexpectedly and devastatingly overtake and overcome the eldest and (in my eyes) in every way most grown-up member of our family, what chance did a little fellow such as I stand in life?

Fortunately for me, it was also through such early experiences of painful loss and family grieving that I witnessed first hand and – as I recall it now – a kindly comforting power of selfless caring. Almost as long as I can remember during childhood, another sister had been required to wear a calliper on one of her legs, due to the effects of a serious chronic illness and for most of her childhood was unable to walk unaided. For a time in pre-school days, I had been included in my sister’s daily visits to the local hospital and I learned a great deal for which I am grateful to this day, from her example of sheer courage and perseverance in the face of such adversity. As I look back over the years, I am thankful too, for loving and devoted parents and also, during those days, for a special loving and caring relationship with another sister, a true mentor in almost every sense (who was herself to be taken from this life some six years later). In a recent volume entitled, “A Cancer Illness: Prescriptions for Everyday Coping – In Letter Form, I have from time to time made reference to those early and formative days and over the course of this correspondence, I may occasionally draw on them again where appropriate. Sufficient is it to state at the outset of this present and of future writings employing this format, that such experiences as life seems (as we see it at the time) to inflict upon us – where they are sensitively and adroitly handled by those in whose charge and care we are – can and do surely cause us to grow and blossom into stronger, more sensitive-to-others and self reliant individuals. Indeed, it was in those early days that I first began to learn how fortunate and necessary it is to have a guiding hand so readily available although, of course, such sentiments only really began to take conscious form and shape in later years. It was also during those days that I slowly began to learn of just what it might be possible to achieve in life; and to recognize the earliest awarenesses of such likely inner achievement and feelings of fulfilment.

I do, of course, readily acknowledge that the very process of looking back over time – and especially over the earliest experiences available, i.e. via conscious memory – can and often does somewhat distort and even alter or rearrange what actually appears to remain ‘on-board’ and available to everyday awareness. Nevertheless, these two broad strands (as they both appear to me) of on the one hand powerfully entrenched, at times, seeming conflicting memories of loss and its impact and consequences; and on the other, of a potential healing and creative power through the selfless love and care of others, can and, I believe, in my own case has, combined to provide in later years, for a stronger more insightful, person-centred approach to and awareness of the cares and needs of others. Of course, in any attempted self-assessment one is likely to be biased and that possibility should be born in mind when reading the above.

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