coping with illnessWe recently interviewed an author and psychotherapist local to Baltimore by the name of Israela Meyerstein. She wrote a book on the topic of How to cope with Illness. We were especially curious what advice she has for someone coping with their spouse’s illness. Her wonderful book is called, Bridge to Healing; Finding Strength to Cope with Illness.

The following is a transcript from our interview with Israela- We asked her 9 questions on the topic of coping with illness.

Why did you write Bridge to Healing; Finding Strength to Cope with Illness?

During my own illness journey I experienced a range of difficult emotions and challenges. Besides struggling with a serious illness, navigating today’s complex high tech medical system can be confusing and overwhelming to patients. I realized that millions of other people face these same difficulties, and I wanted to help them. I wrote my book to offer support, comfort, insights, and practical spiritual tools to help patients, family members, and those who care for them. I believe that my book offers resources to strengthen coping and renew one’s spirits during illness and recovery.

Who is the audience for Bridge to Healing?

Bridge to Healing is written from the perspective of a patient as well as an experienced social worker. As such, it is intended for patients, family members, friends, caregivers, health care and mental health professionals. Bridge to Healing shows how spirituality can be a resource when facing life’s challenges. Informed by a Jewish perspective, Bridge to Healing shares universal practices and varied spiritual pathways that can strengthen coping and renew one’s spirit. Helpful tips and practical guidelines will help patients and practitioners who deal with illness.

What does the metaphor “Bridge to Healing” refer to?

Reb Nachman of Bretzlov said that “a person walks in life on a very narrow bridge.” Sometimes that bridge is suspended over troubled waters, such as illness, injury, crisis, or loss. Our task in life is to navigate our journey as best as we can. The bridge refers to what helps us on our journey from a place of confusion and overwhelm to greater wholeness or healing. The “bridge” consists of the varied practices we can adopt to strengthen us on our journey.

How can Bridge to Healing help those facing illness, injury, and other life crises?

A Yiddish proverb states that: “A small hole in the body produces a greater hole in the soul.” When our bodies ache, so do our spirits. A diagnosis of illness throws a person off balance and creates a major detour in life. Patients often feel confused and alone in the land of the sick, without a map for the unfamiliar territory of the high tech medical system. Bridge to Healing provides a “M.A.P.S.” perspective to help guide patients on their journey through illness, treatment, and recovery. In addition, Bridge to Healing offers a repertoire of “spiritual coping tools” to help patients and those who care for them, feel comforted, inspired, and strengthened.

What does the M.A.P.S. perspective in Bridge to Healing stand for and mean?

The M.A.P.S. perspective is an acronym for: M-meaning; A-agency or self-advocacy and empowerment; P-practical coping tools; and S-Spiritual connections. I believe these elements can benefit people facing illness and other life challenges. Much has been written about the importance of finding new meaning and purpose in life. Research shows that patients’ developing a sense of agency, and advocating for themselves helps them feel empowered. Practical coping tools activate the patient on his/her own behalf with messages and practices that comfort, encourage, and inspire. And finally, decades of research confirm the benefit to health of spiritual connections, whether to a Higher Power, religion and spirituality, or to other people in community.

How do Practical Spiritual Coping Tools Work?

Practical Spiritual Coping Tools include a wide repertoire of practices from varied traditions that patients can use to bolster their perceived sense of coping with illness.

The tools come from Complementary and Alternative Medicine (such as acupuncture,

Homeopathy, massage, and yoga); Creative Expression (art, humor, journaling, music, poetry); Meditative approaches (Mindfulness, visualization, guided imagery); Nature;

prayer, Psalms, ritual, stories, texts; and tikkun olam. The tools themselves can produce comfort and inspiration, while actively selecting and using them strengthens patients’ sense of agency and perceived coping.

How does illness affect a marriage?

Illness, especially serious illness, strongly impacts a couple and family, creating a detour along life’s path and difficult challenges on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. Illness can bring spouses closer together at a vulnerable time and instill a sense of greater connection and appreciation for one another. At the same time, the overwhelming demands of facing illness and the burdens of caregiving can strain the relationship between the spouses.

The ill spouse may naturally be preoccupied with symptoms, pain, treatment side effects, anxiety, and depression, while trying to stay afloat. The “well” spouse takes on additional tasks and responsibilities, along with lots of anxious worrying about what will happen. If both are ill, stresses fall on children or extended family members. In an already strained marriage that lacks good communication skills and caring behaviors, illness is not likely to make things better. Especially difficult situations are when the naturally inclined caregiving member of the couple takes ill, and the more dependent spouse is unable or unwilling to step up to more demanding caregiving responsibilities.

What might the spouse be going through and how can he or she help?

Having to watch a beloved partner go through illness and not be able to remove the suffering creates painful and helpless feelings in a spouse. While spouses may be equally overwhelmed and frightened by the illness, the spouse may feel the need to protect the patient by showing strength, positivity, and hope to help the patient cope. Alternatively, the patient might seek to protect the spouse by not sharing upsetting feelings. A couple that can openly dialogue about feelings can become closer in the process, which can be strengthening.

Often a spouse becomes a caregiver by necessity, a job that can be rewarding, but also taxing, especially if the spouse is unprepared for such a role, or has been the dependent one who is being taken care of in the relationship. In serious or chronic illness, there is a risk that a “caretaker/patient” dynamic may replace the personal relationship: the offering of practical care without showing personal emotional caring can lead to distance between the spouses and the patient feeling uncared about and alone.

The spouse can certainly help the patient by attending meetings with doctors, as patients often hear less than 50% of the information shared by doctors. Also, the presence of a family member alters the balance of power in the room and may give the patient courage to speak up and ask questions. One of the most powerful ways the spouse can help is through their physical and emotional presence, or “being there” in a caring way, showing that he or she is there in sickness and health.

 What kind of reactions and responses have you received from readers of Bridge to Healing?

I feel very gratified and pleased by the extremely positive reviews Bridge to Healing has received from patients, family members, and professionals. For me, hearing that the book has helped individuals struggling with illness to feel understood, comforted, and inspired fulfills the main purpose of my writing Bridge to Healing. For purchase information and reviews of Bridge to Healing, as well as future presentations about the book, please visit my website, www.bridge-to-healing.com or email me at israela.meyerstein AT gmail.com.

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We are grateful to Israela for speaking with us on such an important topic! She’ll be sending a copy of her book to Governor Larry Hogan to support him during his own treatments 🙂

With best wishes for your relationship success,

Shlomo and Rivka Slatkin