Accompanying My Daughter Through Illness, and Learning to Rely on God

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We need to keep her in the hospital. Her weight is dangerously low.” These words, spoken by a kind, Spanish doctor, shattered my illusion that we could try to continue as normal.

Although my 14-year old-daughter was anorexic, her weight had stabilized, and doctors gave us the go-ahead to join my husband on a sabbatical in Spain. She responded well at first to the fresh food and sunshine. After a few upsets, however, her weight began to slip away. I winced at the sight of her ribs when we went to the beach, but I had no idea how bad things were until we sought medical advice.

We waited for five hours in a windowless room in the emergency ward while the hospital arranged a bed. My daughter was highly distressed, unable to accept that she needed to stay in the hospital, and I tried to calm her. At last we were brought up to a ward decorated with fish. My daughter clung to me tightly, crying. I thought I would be allowed to stay, but a nurse led me firmly away. 

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The door closed on my daughter’s sobs and I was told to phone in the morning. I was heading away, empty and dazed, when I saw that Mass was starting in a few minutes in the hospital chapel. After the shock and chaos of the day, the quiet chapel was like water to a parched throat. The priest paused during the Mass and invited us to say our loved one’s name. The hospital Mass was the first stitch in what would be a long thread of prayer. 

That first week, I avoided my daughter’s empty room in our flat and fell asleep cuddling her pillow. I longed for hospital visits, although they were difficult. Often, she was angry. Her life had suddenly shrunk to a narrow bed and a window looking out on the wall of another building. At the start or end of a visit, I slipped into the chapel, pushed coins in a slot to light an electric candle and prayed for the strength to continue.

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The pain of watching my daughter suffer caused crushing exhaustion and a sharp pain in my chest, making it hard to get through the day. As I passed strangers enjoying drinks in the Spanish sun, I wondered how they could chat and laugh, when our lives felt like they had been ruptured.

On top of this, we faced endless practical problems: rearranging travel, finding a place to live, and worrying whether our insurance would cover medical costs.

I held onto the thread of prayer, although sometimes I only managed, “Please help.” Faith didn’t provide instant relief, although I had a firm belief that God would bring good out of this. Sometimes emptying my mind was the only thing that helped my feelings of distress. I followed the meditations in “From Suffering to Peace” by Father Ignacio Larrañaga, practicing them as I waited for the bus that would take me to the hospital. During one of those rides, a stranger sat down opposite me on the bus, enclosed my hands in his and said, “Don’t be frightened. It will all work out.”

After pouring out my thoughts to God, in the quiet emptiness that follows tears, I often heard the gentle question, “Have you anything to complain about?” With it came the realization that we were experiencing God’s love and care, made evident especially through the care of my daughter’s doctors and the kind folks I encountered. All I had to do was hand the difficulties over to God and trust him for future moments.

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After a month in the hospital, my daughter began to improve, and three weeks later, she was well enough to leave. The day she was discharged, I felt apprehensive. She still had a lot of weight to regain and the relapse rate was 40%. After going into a church to pray, I felt as if the bus that took me to the hospital was full of the presence of something — saints, angels, I don’t know. It gave me courage for that day and the weeks and months ahead as we remained firm and insisted that she eat. 

An eating disorder is a slippery beast. Just when we think we’ve worked out how to handle it, it changes shape or turns and gets us with the sting in its tail. Faced with challenges I don’t know how to handle, I’ve had to turn to God. In the two years since my daughter left hospital, I have often longed and prayed for the magic moment when she will be fully recovered. Hidden in this is the desire to feel in control so that I can put God back in a corner of my life.

I want the suffering to go, but God doesn’t always fix things right away. It is present in every life, even Christ’s, and through prayer and meditation I have come to realize that I am in some way sharing in Christ’s suffering. Sometimes, when I lose feelings of faith, I share in the silence of the tomb, where our Lord and Savior lies on Good Friday.

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Christ reached the joy of resurrection only through the pain of the cross. Through prayer I’ve glimpsed what my mind can’t grasp. God is at work, even in the middle of what looks like an unresolved mess. I’ve always thought I was strong and self-sufficient, but this situation has shown me my utter dependence on God. Through the staff at the Spanish hospital, medical professionals in Scotland and friends who’ve just listened, I’ve been shown God’s mercy and love.   

Tiny shoots of new life appear. I am learning to be thankful for being able to eat a meal without conflict over food, or take a walk outside without my daughter experiencing anxiety.

My first reaction was to ask why God was allowing this. Why us? I have no answer to this classic question, but I am starting  to ask instead, what is God doing with my suffering? I am experiencing the answer in learning to rely on God, as well as recognizing his grace and love in small things I wouldn’t have appreciated before, such as sunlight and birdsong, a chat with my daughter, or reading a book to my son. Clearing out old ways of doing and thinking has made space for the new. Every day, God offers the possibility of new growth and the birth of Christ in me, even if it is simply a new way of thinking and seeing.