How do people deal with serious illness later in life?

Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 9:29 PM

We all seem to know someone who is going through a serious illness.

The older we get, it’s becoming more and more common to hear of great struggles with difficult disorders. I’m always aware of how people handle this difficult and sometimes life-ending challenge. How can we not be? Sometimes, it’s terribly sad.

I just finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s recent memoir, “Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home.” Her diagnosis of life-threatening chronic lymphoma leukemia turned her life upside down. She plunged into the challenging realm of hospitals, physicians, unfamiliar medical treatments and the intense reality of her own impermanence. It is so interesting, and sad, to watch her travel through the different stages of her disease – the avoidance, the denial, the outright anger, the beginnings of acceptance and finally the treatments, and then those resulting reactions.

She could not write during most of this time, not until she gave in to the infusions. Feeling alone, needing to hear or read what others go through in similar situations, she wrote the book to share her thoughts during extreme sickness, when:

“Everything you know and lived is tossed out the window and glass shatters – I want to say, we are not crazy! We have to make ourselves larger to include the inconceivable. So many of us imagine lying peacefully in our own bed during our last days, serenely bidding goodbye to relatives and friends. Good luck. It’s rare.”

Along with all this trauma, Goldberg’s partner was diagnosed at the same time with cancer. Together and apart, they confronted survival, love and human connection. Tough stuff!

A local friend of mine has had a debilitating disease for several years now that is gradually taking its toll. She’s back and forth to the Mayo Clinic, has daylong infusions of heavy drugs, develops serious side effects from some of them and certainly has her share of challenges. My aches and pains pale in comparison to hers.

Yet she remains quite positive, keeps working as much as she can, gets out into the wilderness occasionally and faithfully attends yoga class. “What else am I going to do?” she asks when I discuss her process with her. There are good days and bad days, she tells me. I can see when she’s having a bad one, and my heart goes out to her.

I wonder where the fine edge is of just giving up. Zeke Emanuel (The Atlantic) and Barbara Ehrenreich (“Natural Causes”) both write about not having any medical interventions after their mid-70s, just dying when the time comes. It makes me ask where my line would be to let go and stop trying to fix whatever’s happening. Cancer? Alzheimer’s? Inability to walk? Complete dependence? And, does this line keep changing? Does it keep moving back according to where we are in our lives?

Life is impermanent, fleeting. Can we open to all these extremes of being? Could we be in the middle of these things and become more tender, more compassionate to ourselves and to others?

Goldberg asks, “Could I stand inside the storm, be drenched and endure, whether into life or into death?”

Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at