A Developmental Perspective on the Effects of Terminal Illness

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An underlying assumption of the literature on terminal illness is the belief that “facing a life threatening illness is a life crisis that intensifies the individual’s search for meaning” (Mcgrath, 2003). When making the overarching statement that all individuals search for meaning in their lives, it is important to acknowledge that this meaning and significance may be found in different ways. One’s reaction to having a terminal illness also differs based on the stage of development. This paper will examine how a terminal illness affects a person at adolescence and at middle adulthood and what it means to each of them, taking into account other variables such as gender, culture, and religiosity. Jamie Sullivan of the film A Walk to Remember is an 18-year-old girl. She is a senior in high school and very involved in school activities. She gets good grades, tutors young children, participates in fundraisers, and writes and acts in the school play. Despite this level of involvement in extracurricular activities, she is somewhat of a loner. Her peers make fun of her for the way she dresses and talks. As a favor, she agrees to help her classmate Landon with his lines for the school play they are in together. After spending this time together, Jamie and Landon realize they are in love. Jamie then has to tell Landon that she has leukemia. Jamie lives with her father, who is a reverend. She is active at church and sings in the choir. Jamie’s mother is dead, although it is not clear how she died or when, though it probably was when Jamie was a child. Jamie’s father seems to be the only family she has and they are very close. He is protective of her and at first, does not want to let her date Landon. However, when she reminds him, “I thought we said that I decide how I want to spend my time and my life,” he begrudgingly agrees to let her go out with him (Shankman, 2002). As explained in Lesser & Pope, adolescents may reject their parents’ definitions of what is in their best interests (2011). Indeed, in this case Jamie decides for herself what is in her best interest and makes an independent decision. Jamie is also independent in other ways. She does not have to rely on her father for activities of daily living. She drives herself to school and seems to be very self-sufficient.

Spirituality is essential to Jamie’s being. Her faith taught her how to be okay with her illness, as she stopped responding to treatment when she was sixteen. When she talks to Landon about her illness for the first time, he is upset and asks her why she didn’t tell him before. She replies, “I didn’t want anyone to be weird around me” (Shankman, 2002). She does not want the attention or the pity. When he panics that he kept her out too much and it must be his fault she is getting sicker, she reassures him, “If anything, you kept me healthy longer” (Shankman, 2002). When Jamie falls in love for the first time, her motivation for living is not only her faith in God and her trust in His plan, but also her romantic relationship. Walter White of the television show Breaking Bad is a 50-year-old man. He has a wife of nearly twenty years named Skyler, a teenage son, Walter Jr., who has cerebral palsy, and a baby daughter on the way. He is also close to Marie, Skyler’s sister, and her husband Hank. Walter is a very talented chemist who once contributed to research that was awarded the Nobel Prize. However, he has never reached his potential as a gifted scientist. He teaches high school chemistry and works at a car wash part time. Skyler is an accountant but not working at the moment and the family struggles financially. Walter lives a very routine and mundane life.

One day while working at the car wash, Walter faints and is rushed to the hospital. He then finds out that he has stage 3 inoperable lung cancer. He reacts very calmly to this news and recites after the doctor, “Best case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live another couple of years” (Gilligan, 2008). He...
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