by Prasanta Verma
When I see other parents rolling their eyes about the nut-free zone in the classroom, I’m the parent who inevitably steps in and explains that food allergies can actually kill. Reactions range from surprise to disbelief.
You’re severely limiting your child.
Is it really necessary to read every label?
Can someone really die from eating just one bite of food?
You’re being dramatic.
These words echo in my head as I research streams of opinions and information on food allergies. After all, this is an “invisible” condition, similar to some chronic illnesses or those who are immunocompromised. Having food allergies and being immunocompromised are not the same, though they do have much in common. As a parent and close friend of those with such conditions, I have an intimate glimpse of this world and am continuously learning how to love them well.
Most of us are accustomed to heading to the doctor’s office for ordinary ailments and receiving a pill or quick treatment. Some conditions, however, do not have a solid beginning and end; there is no known finish line, no pill, no treatment. These conditions follow a nonlinear path, with unanswered medical questions raging like a never-ending war and regular ambushes of symptoms attacking with no predictable pattern. Will each new morning hold more pain, a puzzling new symptom, or a flare-up of something from the past?
Those who haven’t experienced these conditions, or who aren’t close to someone who has, often struggle to define or categorize the unhealed or those with no medical answers. We all know about cancer, a common albeit unwanted condition, but the undefined, long-term chronic illness or condition is more obscure, a stranger to our understanding. When someone who is close to me says they wish they had cancer instead of a lesser understood chronic condition, well, that stops me in my tracks.
People suffering with these hidden conditions often live life in different increments of time: maybe one treatment at a time or one meal at a time. Many encounter doubt and skepticism from relatives and friends. They endure continual medical appointments and a baffled or dismissive medical community. In addition, they also grapple with the losses of time, opportunities, relationships, and health—genuine and deep griefs.
My allergic child, for instance, can’t eat out at restaurants, potlucks, or birthday parties. We take our own home-cooked food everywhere. Reading labels also is an absolute must, yet even the highest level of vigilance doesn’t guarantee a safe ending. It is a challenge not to sound like we’re complaining, or to make it sound worse than it is; it’s simply our reality.
So what do those with food allergies or chronic illness want? They want to be seen, heard, and believed. They want to belong, which is no different than what we all want. Like the woman with a bleeding issue in Luke 8:43-48, who was isolated and held at a distance by society, our immunocompromised and allergic friends also feel forced to the margins, unable to participate in communion with its regular crackers and grape juice, or the classroom birthday pizza party. Yet they desperately wish to participate fully in their schools, communities, and churches. The central human need for belonging helps me to see how much we all have in common.
A few years ago, a friend asked me what safe food she could bring for my child to a group gathering. That was a practical way of saying, “I see you and want to include you.” As the parent of a food allergic child, that gesture spoke volumes to me and my child. In another situation, a close friend with a chronic illness had a small group of friends rally beside her and include her in a weekend trip they had planned. They spaced out activities to allow time for rest in-between, and booked a room with a kitchen so they could prepare their own meals to accommodate a special diet. It was a practical way of saying, “We love you and want to include you.”
Of course, our immunocompromised and allergic friends also want to be healed. They want answers. And I can pray for that with them. But since providing that healing or those answers is beyond my control, I ask myself how to build community and how to be an example of a loving, inclusive neighbor. Like our missional God, who is always seeking us out, we are a missional people; therefore, we can seek to love and take the initiative to draw people in. I also ask myself how I might speak up with compassion and sensitivity, because my voice is needed. This is divine work, requiring a steady transformative work in my own heart and mind.
So the answer is yes, food allergies can indeed kill, and our allergic and immunocompromised friends are not being dramatic. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is how can we help them live life to the fullest by including them while safeguarding their health and well-being? While we wait together for our eternal home and our resurrected bodies unencumbered by imperfection and disease, we have this in common: no human being is allergic or immune to the joy and beauty of friendship, inclusivity, and love.
Prasanta Verma, MBA, MPH, was born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, and currently resides in the upper Midwest. She is a writer and poet, and has been published in Relief Journal, (in)courage, The Perennial Gen, The Contemplative Writer, The High Calling/Patheos, and more. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram @prasanta_v_writer, and her website https://prasantaverma.com/