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Advice For Coping with Unexpected Illness

Updated on July 3, 2017

Many, many years ago I was in a car crash where I broke my neck, collapsed both lungs, split my head open and broke my little toe. A friend wrote me a letter similar to the one below.

I had been in ICU for several weeks at the time and would remain there for another month. There would be more hospitals, surgeries, and rehabilitation work before it was done. I don't know any of this then.

An Unusual Perspective

I did know that a machine was breathing for me and that I would never walk again. My friend's letter was very comforting and useful because she spoke to the reality of my situation without sentiment or false hope. I read it over and over again.

The letter below isn't exactly the same but it is similar in tone and content to the original. I wrote this one to the brother of a coworker who is struggling with a long hospitalization from an unexpected illness.

It is my deepest desire that this will be useful to him and I include it here with the hope it will be useful to someone else.

The Letter

Dear -- --

This is the hardest part of being ill. The waiting. It is a limbo land where all the days seem to blend together. There is no sense of progress. You have to wait for the tests and the results and the diagnosis and the doctor’s opinions and for the medication to work or not work. It seems as if none of this is within your control and that can make you feel powerless and angry. I’ve been there.

But you’re not powerless. Waiting is your job right now. It takes effort to be mindful of yourself and your body. It takes discipline to store up positive effort to help direct yourself toward healing. It is waiting with intent.

This gray time of not knowing is when you must be most on guard against the fear. It creeps in and worries at the edges of the mind. It tells you that only bad things will happen and from that more bad things. It plays on your imagination and exploits the side effects of the illness and the medication.

It's only natural to be concerned about the future. But right now no plans can be made with surety. It is a waiting time. Try not to dwell on the unknown. If you can, find a calm place in your heart and your head where you can let events unfold. Put your energy there. Regardless of physical condition, it is always the mind directs you. I expect you may already know this.

I hope you can find your patience with the world around you while all these health matters sort themselves out. I wish for you the courage and strength to face what comes.


For What It Is Worth

As you can read, this is not your usual get well letter. The original spoke to me because it addressed the fear I had about the future. It also helped me find a way to participate in my own healing at a time when I truly felt I was powerless and victimized.

It's been 41 years since I got that letter. The friend who wrote it has passed on. I revisit her letter a few times a year because I've found that fear is always lurking about. It is a constant struggle to live in this world as I choose and my friend's advice always helps me find a path. I have long lost touch with the person I sent my letter to so I can only hope that he has also made a path for himself.

Photograph of pen and paper by Linda Cronin from Flickr


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