Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Olson, C. (1986). How can we understand the life of illness?. Unpublished Dissertation. Edmonton: The University of Alberta.



< Abstract >

This research question dwells in my life: “How can we understand the life of illness?” The question emerged in childhood, when my oldest brother, Eddie, and my baby sister, Grace, died of kidney failure and related causes. When I was ten years old, my mother told me I had kidney failure too. During my teen years, my younger sisters, Joy and Crystal, and I were frequently in hospital as the disease progressed. Crystal died when I was in high school. The following year, 1969, my older brother Arthur experienced the sudden collapse of his kidneys with Hong Kong flu and began dialysis on the artificial kidney machine. Joy and I began dialysis two years later. Our years on dialysis together ended when Joy and Arthur died in 1983. My father died from a heart attack in 1979. Yet the meaning of their lives is not primarily that they died but how they lived. How ought we to live? Though this research is completed, the question is new each morning.


The technology of medical care is part of the research question too. Medical technology sustains my life. But technology itself has no life – no soul that suffers pain and abounds in hope. And so technology is mute about the pain it requires of us, the hope it inspires in us, the life it gives us. The silence of technology becomes a question within us: “What is life that technology is not sufficient for life?” This question turns us to what is beyond us, to God, the search for what is good in the re-search of daily life.


How could I research the life of illness in a way that would help understand how one ought to live? Gadamer writes that understanding is always application, a form of action. Therefore, I searched the actions of those who live in illness and with illness to let show their understanding. The method for my research was hermeneutic phenomenology, the action of reflective reading, interviewing, and writing. Excerpts from literary texts were engaged in hermeneutic reflection with a medical doctor, a nurse, a chaplain, and a family member. In this way, the life of illness was researched through the community of illness.


In all these actions, I could not theorize myself out of the pain and the hope, the life of illness. I stand in illness in my research before God, one of the world in pain and hope. I want to live in understanding. I want to learn how one ought to live through illness, even through the grief of pain. The method of finding the themes of pain and hope is reflection: thinking from the heart of mute experience to come to the heart of the written word. Literary texts show the silence of illness through the voice of the individual, reverberating with the heart of one’s experience, shared by all. Still the words of the shared understanding – themes, are not easily articulated. Whereas the literary author lets the themes rest in the writing of story and fiction, the researcher searches for the words of the themes as they are shown through description and dialogue in the literary text, in interviewing, and in the research writing. Explanation would stop the question, “How ought we to live?” but themes reveal possibilities for living in this question until the themes themselves become open to deeper understanding.


The deepest understanding that this research has yielded is a quiet saying, the theme:


“The good of understanding is action, is love (care).” In illness, there is no life in us other than the love of God for us. There is no life for us other than the love of family, friends, and community; and our love for them. Some live to love the multitude, like Mother Teresa. But love is experienced in the individual. So I could not suggest appropriate action for different Situations of illness: the good of understanding, the action of love-God’s love, is you.