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Behind the Smile: How to Love a Chronically Ill Person

Excerpts taken from a Beck Ewing interview with Paul Watson, founder of Contagious Disciple Making. You can find the full interview at "Behind the Smile" is the beginning of the interview series How to Love Well.

“Don’t patronize me!” Mrs. Watson spat through clinched teeth at her son while standing in their kitchen.

Paul didn’t mean to patronize his mother. He was only trying to show care and concern.

As I interviewed Paul Watson, founder of Contagious Disciple Making, about loving people with chronic illness, I understood how his mother felt. I, too, struggle with chronic illness.

A missionary kid having grown up overseas in Hong Kong, Malaysia, India, and Singapore, Paul knows what it was like to support a loved one dealing with chronic illness. During his junior high and high school years, his mom developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Mrs. Watson would wake up but then feel so exhausted she'd have to go back to bed. There was nothing wrong with her mind or her will or her heart, but everything wrong with her body. Since his dad was often away from home due to ministry, Paul took over all the chores in the house- all the cleaning, the laundry, the ironing, the food preparation, etc.

Mrs. Watson desperately wanted to help. But her body just failed her, and there was nothing that she could do. So Paul had to learn to love people through illness, to love them unconditionally and self-sacrificially.

But in that moment in the kitchen, Paul, even though he had the best of intentions, had hurt his mother and learned a valuable lesson in caring for chronically ill loved ones. We can easily treat chronically ill people like they are mentally deficient because of their physical ailments. We must take care to show respect to even the most crippled of humans and not add insult to injury.

Paul explained what that incident taught him: “I learned very quickly that you can, in your mind…tell yourself…I'm dealing with someone who's incredibly intelligent and capable and I just say that over and over again, [and] that mantra in my head will adjust my attitude and my body language- even what's communicated behind my eyes to the person I'm talking to….they can pick up on those signs. [P]eople with chronic illness often become hypersensitive to the micro signs of disrespect that people exude, because they're always trying to figure out when they've hit their limit with you and you're no longer going to have the tolerance to show them the love and the care and concern that they are needing.”

Me: “Yes…Because…dealing with chronic illness is hard enough…without dealing with the social implications of it all…It is surprising how poorly people react to people with chronic illness. Just the amount of…disrespect, the… lack of care, the… blame and shame that they put upon you. And …you…become more traumatized at times by this social pain…than you do [from] even the incredible physical pain that you…endur[e].”

We all have loved ones or friends who are affected by chronic illness: fibromyalgia, IBS, adrenal fatigue syndrome, depression, chronic migraines, anxiety, multiple sclerosis- and the list goes on and on. When we’re around them, our friends may smile, laugh, and even act quite normal, but often we are not aware of the depth of the struggle they endure just to get through a day. Even though we live in a society that has a pill for everything, doctors don’t completely understand these chronic syndromes. And suffers will spend years and thousands of dollars trying to manage a body that seems to be their enemy at every turn.

Do we really know how to love them well? The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, but do we love people the way that God has intended us to love them? We greet others with a smile, open a door for an elderly person, and maybe even put a few dollars into the fireman’s boot at the stoplight. But does our loving others go beyond mere politeness and charitable donations?

Even more so, do we take the time to know enough about someone to love them in a way that is the most helpful and meaningful to them? Often we assume that we already know how best to solve a problem, and accidentally hurt more than we help. We rush ahead to show our enthusiasm to a felt need without considering how our efforts might affect the one in need. We view others as projects instead of individuals, each with special needs and challenges. So if we are to love each person well, we must strive to understand those around us.

That’s how Christ loved us. Christ became one of us: experienced what it was like to struggle, be lonely, have pain, be tempted. He gave up His comfort, His position, His rights to serve us. His service was inconvenient, sacrificial, and beyond societal norms and expectations.

So how can we love those suffering from illness in a way that is life-giving and truly supportive? Between my experience personally struggling with chronic illness and Paul’s experience serving chronically ill loved ones, we came up with some tips. Here is a summary of some of the tips discussed in our interview:

1. Spend time with them.

Chronic illness is intensely isolating. Often chronically ill people cannot go to parties, group church events, travel, or participate in other normal social activities. Spending time with them in places and ways that accommodate their physical limitations is one of the best gifts you can give them.

2. Ask questions and listen to them

Before giving advice, before rushing ahead to help, before you try to encourage chronically ill loved ones, ask questions. These may include:

What have you tried already in your treatments?

What comforts you?

What do you really need?

How can I help?

Sometimes the help a chronically ill person needs is mundane. Like folding their laundry when they simply have no more energy. And sometimes serving them requires going the extra mile: like riding with them to run an errand in a different city (traveling, including day trips, is exhausting and can be even risky for the chronically ill). And sometimes just having someone to sit and mourn or laugh with them is exactly what they need.

3. Be willing to serve them in a way THEY need, not in a way you prefer or understand.

Often after hearing the odd challenges and requests that chronically ill people have, many feel helpless or overwhelmed by the complicated nature of their issues and essentially withdraw their offer of help. While being overwhelmed is completely understandable, choosing not to serve in the ways the chronically ill request after offering help makes the sufferer feel like they are not worth the bother. They’re not worth the complication or inconvenience.

If you offer help and they explain that action wouldn’t be helpful, don’t give up and, instead, ask what would be helpful. And if they have the courage to tell you, do it if at all possible.

4. Be in it for the long haul.

One of the deepest pains chronically ill people go through is seeing their friends and family drop off the radar one by one as they become fatigued by their physical challenges. Resolve to be that friend that won’t give up on them. Keep on inviting them to come to your parties even if they can’t come. Then call or visit them at another time. They love knowing they’re still wanted and not forgotten.

Pray for them, call them, invite them to hang out, serve them to the point of inconvenience, social awkwardness, and self-sacrifice. Don’t give up on them. Show them Christ’s love. They’re worth it.

If you’d like to know more about how to love chronically ill people, listen to the full interview at

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