Something I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year and a half is what kind of friend I can be when somebody is going through something like I did.
Before I got cancer, I never really knew how to help somebody that needed help. I didn’t know what to do when somebody was in a crisis. I always tried to be there, to check in with people, to do what I could, but I have a feeling I often got it wrong.
In going through my own crisis I’ve learned a lot, so here’s the advice I’m going to share.
1. Don’t say “let me know what I can do” because I can almost guarantee that they won’t (this isn’t just me, pretty well everyone I’ve spoken to about this has said the same thing, that they never specifically asked for anything of people that said this). When someone says that it’s very hard to know what they mean; what would be too much and what wouldn’t. Instead think about what you can realistically do that would be helpful, and either offer to do that specific thing (take the kids) or, if appropriate, just do it (drop off food or gifts).
2. Don’t make your offer turn into work. If you offer to bring someone dinner don’t ask them loads of questions about what they want and where to get it; instead ask if they have any dietary restrictions, maybe ask if they like a specific restaurant you have in mind, and then arrange something. Unless you know for a fact that this person or their family are very picky, they will be happy to have a meal that they can eat with minimum effort on their part. When someone is too sick, tired, or traumatized to prepare dinner…the last thing they want to do is put a lot of thought towards what someone else is offering. During a crisis, sometimes just thinking is too much work. When I was in chemo I used to joke that I just needed someone to micromanage me!
3. Don’t be offended if your idea of help is rejected. If you offered to do something for someone and they say no or suggest something else instead, that’s OK. The whole point is to be helpful, and what you think is helpful may not be what they want or need. Some people love having visitors, others don’t. Some people love having help with the housework, others find it intrusive (as much as I hate doing laundry, I never wanted help with laundry because my basement is a mess and I didn’t want people going down there). Some people want help with the kids, other people want help with the house so they can focus on the kids.
3. Do remember that the most important thing you can probably do is to be there. I greatly appreciated people that remembered when I had chemo and texted me during (to occupy me if was bored) or afterwards to see what I needed or how I was, the people that wanted to know how I was doing and reached out to me personally to check in, the people that offered to visit and came and sat with me when I was bored and lonely, the people that remembered to include my family and kids in their plans, and asked about my chemo schedule and when I’d be feeling well so that I can be included as much as possible…planning events when I’d be up to it.
4. Don’t be scared to talk about the crisis, no matter what it is, your loved one will let you know if they don’t want to talk about it. Also, don’t be afraid and scared to talk about other things…your loved one may just want the distraction of discussing issues you’re having at work or with your in-laws or whatever. There’s an assumption that going through someone going through a crisis doesn’t want to hear about other people’s problems, but in my experience that’s probably not true. It’s nice to be spoken to like normal, but try to be aware of cues when it’s too much.
5. Remember that crises often last a lot longer than it seems. Often people are there and helpful at the beginning, and then they slowly back away and we are left alone. I remember everybody asking what they can do for me when I was diagnosed, and there was nothing I wasn’t even having my surgery for another month! By the time I was in chemo and certainly by the time I was in radiation, a lot of people had already drifted away.