NOTE: This is a guest post written by a former teacher who left work due to serious health problems and is currently building her own business as a copy editor.
Recently I came across an article in The Guardian, “Top five regrets of the dying.” In it, the author describes “regrets people have at the end of life”, as noted by a palliative care nurse.
As someone who lives with a difficult chronic illness, I found one point in the article to be particularly frustrating:
“Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result (of suppressing their feelings in order to keep peace with others).” I have several problems with this statement.
1. The author uses the term “relating to”, rather than “caused by”, denoting a correlation between bitterness and resentment and illness, rather than causation. Although she’s not saying that these feelings create illness, the implication is there .
2. The statement promotes the idea in healthy people that by continuing to do the “right thing” (e.g., not harbor negative emotions), they can avoid illness. It seems to me that this creates a sense of false control that most likely will lead to even greater distress if serious illness or injury does occur.
3. Additionally, this idea blames the unhealthy for being unable to manage their emotions more successfully. This implies that chronically ill people cause their disease and failure to improve is their fault. Where’s the science to support this? Also, in my experience, this kind of blaming is counterproductive for someone who is struggling to improve her health.
4. Finally, what illnesses does she think are related to bitterness and resentment? Is she including all illnesses? Does she limit it, such as this is true for heart conditions or autoimmune diseases? Is she including the child or infant with cancer? Furthermore, while anger, for example, has been shown to play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease, I haven’t seen a scientific study that cites feelings as the root cause of an illness.
My personal experience has been contrary to the above cited quote. When I became ill, at age 29, I was extremely happy in all areas of my life. Everything was coming together for me. I enjoyed a teaching career, my friends, my family, and my hobbies. If I was experiencing bitterness and resentment, it’s news to me. Even now, looking back, I don’t see it.
I volunteered in a children’s hospital where I spent time with a two year old girl with leukemia. While reading books and singing songs to distract her from the IV medication dripping into a central line in her chest, I did not wonder if she was reaping what she sewed. I believed then, and still do, that her illness was caused by multiple factors, all beyond her control and having nothing to do with her emotional state. Had I thought otherwise, it would have been difficult to give her the support she needed.
When I was a teacher, I was trying to educate a group of third graders about their classmate with a neuropsychiatric disorder. I explained that their body might not always work in the same way as it does today. Trying not to scare them, I used the analogy of getting old, something they could relate to but was far away. My goal, aside from ensuring that this child be accepted by his classmates, was to help the students understand his condition. I wanted them to know that the disorder he lived with did not indicate a character flaw nor was it his fault. For the most part, they seemed to understand this, and I hoped that they would carry this attitude with them into adulthood.
I stumbled on this article online where it had been ‘shared’ among friends. I was struck that the author’s words seemed to remind them, the “healthy” people, how important it is to appreciate each day. That’s a good thing. But this is a lesson that those of us who live with debilitating chronic medical condition live with on a daily basis. Experience teaches us to appreciate even the smallest accomplishments.
My message to people who enjoy good health: Any one of us is vulnerable to disease or a life-altering injury that can turn our world upside down. There is no point in fearing this possibility. Please appreciate what you can do, take care of yourself as best you can, and live your life to the fullest while enjoying your full health.
But please, do not create what you believe to be a feasible scenario in which ill people have only themselves to blame. When the time comes that illness befalls you, as it almost inevitably will, you will not want our judgment. You will want our wisdom.