How Can I Help?
When I was first diagnosed with terminal cancer I noticed an awkwardness in some of my friends when I told them the news – a slight stepping back, a look away, a wringing of fingers, a prolonged silence, a flush of embarrassment in their cheeks. It was different to their obvious and appropriate shock. There was a discomfort in my presence where previously there had been ease and a respectful, but fearful tentativeness about how to respond.
What do you say? What do you do? How do you realign yourself with such a devastating and unexpected shift in someone’s context? Do you ask questions or bite your tongue in case they’re not ready to answer? Do you distract them to lighten the moment or dive straight into their reality and swim around in their fear? Do you try to console the inconsolable and convince them it will all be ok or do you reveal your own despair?
It is a deeply understandable awkwardness. People want to help, but don’t know how. They want to speak, but don’t want to say the wrong thing. They want to cry, but don’t want to upset you. They want to retreat into their own shock and grief, but don’t want to poach your pain.
At first I took it personally and found some people’s reactions hard to stomach. I was too shaken and vulnerable to see it for what it was. But after a series of reactions that definitely didn’t work for me I began to figure it out and decided to do something about it. So instead of expecting them to know how to support me I wrote them an email with a list of ‘what helps’ and ‘what doesn’t’. This was it:
1. Empathy and acknowledging my situation when you talk to me.
2. Cooking organic high alkaline meals for my freezer (I can provide specific dietary requirements to anyone who is up for this). I am a terrible cook!
3. Childcare (taking Gabriella out, hanging out with her at home so John and I can go out, coming to stay to help out with her, having her over for play dates if you have little ones etc).
4. Remembering John and offering to support him too. This situation will put a lot of pressure on him and I don’t want him forgotten.
5. Prayers (of the authentic variety).
6. Allowing me to feel whatever I feel, including fear and hopelessness. Those emotions are appropriate to my situation and don’t mean I’m giving up or ‘letting cancer win’. I have spent twenty years teaching people how to pass through fear to the other side (vs. suppress it and create more dis-ease). So please trust me if I seem ‘down’.
7. Don’t visit me if you have any viruses, especially when I am going through chemo. Use anti-bacterial gel before seeing me even if you are healthy.
8. Email before you call me and we can arrange a time to talk. Or just email to tell me your news and check in.
9. Keep telling me about your life. I am still Sophie. I can still listen and my being ill does not mean your lives/concerns are no longer important to me.
10. Forgive me if I don’t respond to your emails. I get inundated at times. And tired.
Please note that this list has all already happened, with the best intentions I’m sure, but please try to avoid:
1. Sympathy. I am not a victim and I don’t see cancer as an enemy to fight. I see it as a huge wake up call that deserves my full attention and respect.
2. Telling me to be positive and stay positive (at all times!). (See point 6 above) Sometimes being positive is like putting icing on dog shit and calling it a cake.
3. Giving me advice. (I have so much from the medical folk and will ask if I need some more.)
4. Telling me cancer survival stories (unless they had multi-sited Stage 4 cancer and even then, think before you tell me the story. Does it bear close relation to mine?).
5. Talking about your non-life threatening ailments and how awful they are.
6. Analysing why I have cancer and what my kharma is. (Very high on the annoying scale!)
7. Treating me like my days are numbered and I’m at death’s door.
8. Expecting me to operate as normal in terms of energy, social activities and general engagement with everyday things.
9. Pretending this isn’t happening and carrying on as if it isn’t.
10. Taking offence if you offer me something ‘healing’ and I say no. I need to choose what feels right and congruent for me as well as being selective with my energy and time.
It made a massive difference. The awkwardness dissolved like salt in water and they thanked me for making it so much easier for them to help, which is what they were all longing to do. A group of friends formed a support team to co-ordinate with each other in providing what I had asked for and new friendships were forged between people from different areas of my life. The support I received from that point on surpassed all my expectations and played a huge part in getting me through those first traumatic weeks.
If you are in a similar situation to mine, you will know what you need better than the people around you. Don’t wait for them to figure it out. Tell them. Write your own list and send it to everyone who loves you. Help them to help you when you need it most.