Chronic illness: trauma, language, and writing: breaking the silence

Fam Process. Spring 2001;40(1):33-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2001.4010100033.x.


In our work with families that struggle with a chronic illness, we have relied on three ideas. First, we regard illness as a relationally traumatizing experience, not just for the person with the illness, but for other members of the family as well. We use the phrase "relational trauma" because of its effects on members of a wider system who also show signs of physical stress, isolation, and helplessness (Sheinberg & Fraenkel, 2000). Our second concern is how the conversation that leads to new stories is expanded through the development of voice and the use of writing. Looking at language, we are particularly attentive to the social prevalence of negative metaphors that surround and engulf the ill person and her family: dependence, poor genes, repressed personalities, weak constitutions, et cetera (Sontag, 1984). These negative metaphors, or outside voices, join with the inner voices of the ill person and result in a silence that disconnects people at a time when connections must be relied on and above question. Our third emphasis is on the use of writing as the means to create new voices, metaphors, and multiple descriptions that can reinvigorate the conversations silenced by the illness. Once the family's voices are reconstituted through writing, the emotions that have been displaced by the illness are restored to their conversation. I have included new research from JAMA detailing the treatment of patients with chronic illness through their use of writing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Disease / psychology*
  • Cost of Illness
  • Family Therapy / methods*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Language*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Stress, Psychological / therapy*
  • United States
  • Writing*