Living for Christ In Chronic Illness


Thoughts Concerning Shut-Ins

by Martha Snell Nicholson
[Lightly edited.]


Editor's note: This piece on shut-ins is written by the Christian poet Martha Snell Nicholson. She was a shut-in and invalid suffering from several incurable diseases and was bed-ridden for years. She apparently wrote this during WW II as she mentions food limitations.

This moved my heart, partly because in some ways I can relate and partly because I know there is more I could do for others who are in much worse situations than I am. I think it is very timely at the moment because there are a lot of people, more than some care to admit, who are suffering from long term effects from Covid. We are seeing now, and may possibly see for years to come, the lasting effects and fall out of this terrible sickness for some people. I hope these words of wisdom from Mrs. Nicholson will make you stop and think about how you might minister to those suffering from severely limiting health conditions. Some of her expressions and experiences are a bit outdated by modern standards, but I'm sure you can easily think of how they translate today for the invalids and chronically ill. Many of the things that she suggests doing are still very applicable.

Mark 1:41  And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. While we cannot cleanse lepers or heal sick people today, we certainly can be the compassionate hand of Jesus reaching out to those who are suffering, bringing them help and comfort as we are able.


I would write a word on behalf of my fellow shut-ins, bespeaking for them a deeper understanding of, and sympathy with, their peculiar problems. I have had letters from hundreds of them and I never knew a finer, more courageous set of people - this silent, suffering army, fighting daily battles, their victories too often unrecorded save in the books of Him who said, "I was sick and ye visited me." They are among the unsung heroes of the world, and unsung too are the praises of those who devote their lives to caring for these sick ones. Among these I am proud to number my own dear husband who has never faltered in his devotion to me.

The problems of shut-ins are many and, of course, varied according to their circumstances. Some who are married must learn to shop by proxy; must plan food for the family even though the very thought of food sickens; must manage finances, and learn to stretch the paycheck over the constant doctor bills; must keep an understanding interest in the active lives of their children; must, indeed, learn that the very heart of the home can be the sickroom.

Others, life-long invalids, have never married and their problems are still more acute, usually complicated by financial difficulties. Many of them must support themselves by making fancywork, taking magazine subscriptions, or something similar. Perhaps you look at them and think that because they have no family they cannot understand. Remember they, too, longed for love and home and children as much as you did. Although these blessings came to you and not to them, their longing is nonetheless keen.

Certain problems are common to all shut-ins, married or single: to battle inertia and discouragement; to keep the spirit on tiptoe, as it were; what to do with long hours when the eyes cannot be used and the radio tires; how to hold friends when one cannot return calls nor entertain; how to know the joy of labor when hands must be idle; how to overcome loneliness; how to keep a sense of proportion so that little things will not matter too much.

It isn't just being sick that is hard. It is the broken hopes, the feeling of being shut out of real life, the fear of growing odd and different, the dread of being a burden, the terrible feeling of uselessness. We do so want to be loved, yet how hard it is to be always lovable! Of course we cannot expect to be loved just because we are sick.

Perhaps most of those who are shut in for physical causes are also nervously ill. The abnormal manner of life; the lack of physical exercise and interesting occupation; the compulsory indoor life, the bitter knowledge, in many cases, that one will never be any better - all these contribute to this condition.

Most of us learn, in time, to bear pain - we have to - but shattered nerves are still harder to endure. We do not get enough exercise to enable us to sleep; and lack of sleep, in turn, frays the nerves - a vicious cycle. How well I know all the dreadful and humiliating details - the pounding heart and choking breath; inability to concentrate; the mental confusion and keen anguish; the general feeling of disintegration; the dizziness, the roaring in the head.

There is little profit in talking about it. No one who has had it wants to talk about it, and no one who has not can possibly understand it. But thanks be to God, He is the One who made nerves and He understands that they, too, wear out under stress and strain. And He gives peace and rest even to us broken ones. When I get to Heaven I think I shall enjoy my new set of nerves even more than my painless and erect body. And meanwhile God has helped me conceal this condition from those who know me.

Speaking from experience, I can say that this is an issue. I try not to be frustrated by this kind of helpfulness about cures and remedies because I have learned useful things from others at times. But sometimes I do feel a bit, well, overwhelmed with all the unsolicited help from people who don't even know what I'm dealing with. I don't say this to make people feel guilty, so please don't take it that way if you've ever offered me health advice. :-) I have been inclined to do the same things to others at times. But, it's something we should keep in mind.
Speaking from experience, I can say that this is an issue. I try not to be frustrated by this kind of helpfulness about cures and remedies because I have learned useful things from others at times. But sometimes I do feel a bit, well, overwhelmed with all the unsolicited help from people who don't even know what I'm dealing with. I don't say this to make people feel guilty, so please don't take it that way. :-) I have been inclined to do the same things to others at times. But, it's something to keep in mind. Now may I gently offer a few practical suggestions in which you may be of great help to the sick and the shut-ins of your acquaintance. They are only simple little things but they matter much to the invalid. Do not be too quick with urgent suggestions that they try this or that remedy. Through the years of my invalidism, I have come to the rueful conclusion that there must be hundreds of remedies for hundreds of ailments, and sometimes I feel that I have been urged to try them all. As this is manifestly impossible, and as most of us are doing the best we can - perhaps under strict orders of the doctor - perhaps this manner of helpfulness might better be omitted entirely. [See side bar.]

There is another little thing which doesn't bother me in the least, but I have learned that it is irritating to many shut-ins - remarks about their appearance. If one is feeling wretched he finds it exasperating to be told, "You look so well. I don't believe you are really very sick." Or if one is already discouraged it doesn't help to be told, "You are looking pale today." Personally this does not affect me one way nor the other.

Food is a very prosaic subject, but after all we do hear a good deal about it these days. Sick and well have this one thing in common - they all do have to eat. Food presents a great difficulty to the shut-in, especially now that there is a shortage in so many items, and the patient may be on a diet requiring those particular things. I know of many shut-ins who live alone in a single room and must, in some manner, prepare their own simple and none-too-tempting meals, and then they are too tired to eat them. Others are dependent on the efforts of husband, or sister, or mother.

Many a time a kind neighbor has brought me a tray at mealtime and I wish they could really know what it has meant to me. It may have been just what we were going to have anyhow but it was cooked a little differently, it was served on different dishes and, best of all, it was seasoned with love and neighborliness. I shall always feel an almost passionate gratitude to the neighbor, who seeing that I had unexpected company, hastily made a delicious chocolate cake and brought it over. Or the one who, during a heat wave which prostrated me, heated her own oven to bake me some dainties to tempt my appetite. And there was the one who, calling and finding me very ill with flu, went home by way of the butcher shop and, that evening, brought down a kettle of chicken soup with the meat of the entire chicken in it. Still others have taken home fruit and canned it for me.

Shut-ins cannot entertain, and this is something they miss greatly. One of the nicest things people do for me is to come to dinner, bring the dinner, and wash the dishes afterward. This gives me the illusion of hospitality and the joy of fellowship. Try this sometime with shut-ins of your acquaintance and I'll guarantee that you'll all enjoy it. Oh how my heart has gone out in gratitude to those who have taken home some curtains to do up. Or to those who, while calling, have looked into the ironing drawer, and finding it full, have done the ironing while they visited with me.

And how shall I speak of those dear women who have literally moved in on me time after time, five of them, and have cleaned my house from top to bottom. The sight of them down on the knees scrubbing my dirty floors is one I shall remember through all eternity, and so will our Lord who put the kindly impulse into their hearts.

I cannot express the gratitude I feel toward those who have done typing for me, have even mimeographed letters to help me in my heavy correspondence.

Ask your sick friends sometimes to do little things for you and see how happy this makes them. Nothing beyond their strength, perhaps only to let them know you actually DEPEND on their prayers. They desperately need the joy of accomplishment, and they long to do something with their own time beside kill it.

Share your home life with them, talk over some of your problems with them. Do not feel that, because some of them do not have home and husband and children, they cannot understand. They may be wiser than you think. Perhaps their perspective is better than yours. Perhaps they know better than you how precious these things are.

A few more - very practical suggestions:

Do call [visit] often but do not stay for several hours if the patient is very weak. Never argue with the patient, especially about heavy doctrinal subjects.

Do not sit in a rocking chair and rock back and forth in front of a window. Most shut-ins have frequent headaches; therefore try to avoid nervous motions of the hands like tapping on a chair, opening and shutting the clasp of a purse, slapping the hand with car keys or gloves. Members of a shut-in's family can see that faucets do not drip nor windows rattle. These are only little things but they mean a great deal to a sick person. And do not leave a radio [or television, video games, etc.] blaring for hours.

Please be very careful not to make the shut-in feel that he is a financial burden. I know from letters I receive that he is often deeply sensitive about this. Remember that I am the confidante of many shut-ins, hence I know some of their problems.

And, in passing, do not tell them to "keep smiling." It must be a monotonous way of life.

When you do your Christmas shopping, why not buy some of the fancywork or other articles they have for sale?

If you bring small children - and we do care to see them more than you can know - please try to keep them within bounds. How well I remember an infant terrible, years ago, who climbed on my bed, jumped happily up and down on my stomach, then off to upset my water glass upon my Bible, break a picture frame, and investigate some bottles of pills. I noticed just in time that he was about to take a strychnine pill! After a session like that, the patient is left wringing wet with exhaustion.

My heart is torn almost beyond endurance by those shut-ins who do not know the Lord. They must have more fortitude than I, for I could not endure my life without Him. But to contemplate the fact that, having suffered a lifetime here they must go on and suffer an eternity of separation from Him - it is almost more than I can bear. So, if you know any such - and there are thousands of them - I beseech you, never stop trying to present the precious SAVIOUR to them in such a way that they cannot help but want Him.

If so be they are saved, of course you do not need to be told that there is nothing that can bring them greater joy than to talk with them about the things of the Lord, especially about the blessed hope. That blessed hope cannot mean to others what it does to those of us who are hopelessly ill. To us it means, not only the day when the Lord we love will be crowned KING of kings and Lord of lords; not only the time when, at last, we shall see the face of Him whom, not having seen, we love [1 Peter 1:6-9]; but it means that our suffering at long last is over - over for all eternity.

There will be no tears in heaven and yet I think that, for a moment, before He wipes my tears away, I shall be shaken by great shuddering, uncontrollable sobs - sobs of relief that the long years of suffering are over at last; and that I have seen the KING in all His beauty; and that I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Revelation 21:4-5  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

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of Martha Snell Nicholson

background and graphics by Mary Stephens
vintage graphic: unknown source
posted March 2022