And now, a killer guest entry from Maddie Greene. Maddie is a survivor of ovarian cancer and has some really, really important tips on how to elegantly and lovingly support a friend going through a serious illness. I spotted her when this amazing Reddit comment made the front page. Quick sample:
The primary lesson I learned is that friends will desert you in droves when you and your friends are young enough not to have experienced death and tragedy before. That distinction is important. Fleeing illness out of fear is how we first deal with that big mess. … Bear in mind that your girlfriend might be experiencing the dissolution of what she thought was a strong support network.
Anyway, Maddie was kind enough to write a guest entry on how we can be good when people need us most. Maddie?
Only weeks after losing a friend to leukemia, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My friends and I staggered through this tumultuous period with frequent awkwardness and occasional grace. Learn from our errors and wield my advice to support friends undergoing serious illness or trauma!
“Let me know if you need anything” isn’t all that helpful.
Offer specific help. Not just “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” but “Can I bring you my famous baked mac and cheese on Thursday?” Propose something concrete that you know you can accomplish easily and see if it fits a need the person may not have known how to verbalize. Specificity helps — articulating needs and desires is not easy mid-trauma.
Listen, but talk too
When Tig Notaro scrapped her usual memorized comedy routine for a live, frank set about her cancer diagnosis and other recent traumas, she pointed out that many of her friends suddenly refused normal conversations, assuming she would be disinterested in daily life now that she had bigger things to worry about. She disagreed. “Just somebody, talk to me, please,” Notaro begs in her act. Don’t exclude your friend or assume they can only talk about their illness. Talk to them.
And get ready for it to get weird.
When I was in recovery I invited two friends over. I remember, in excruciating detail, the looks on their faces and their uncomfortable, frozen body language when I began crying hysterically. I was upset over something the doctor had said about cancer spreading to the brain.
After they left, I didn’t see those guys for about three years.
I understand it from their perspective. We were all in our early 20s and death is a terrifying thing to deal with at that age. There I was, sobbing and yelling about brain cancer. They must have thought I was insane. (And of course I didn’t have brain cancer.)
Understand that major illness or injury is traumatic. A hurting body and reeling mind can lash out unexpectedly— at life, at you, at itself. Prepare yourself for this by expecting “word vomit.” Don’t necessarily dismiss it as hysteria; these fears are constant in your friend’s mind and sometimes they need to come out.
Don’t tell them to cheer up.
All the empathy and imagination in the world won’t put you in their place. Don’t imagine you can know what they’re going through. Try, by all means! But their journey is their own. You can’t consult your own imagination and decide how they should behave. Don’t tell them how they should act — not by word or deed.
Cooperate with mutual friends.
Check in with mutual friends periodically to ask if anything’s planned for your sick friend. This could end up being as easy as tossing a few bucks someone’s way to buy a floral bouquet or slapping your moniker on a card. It’s less effort for you but reaps big rewards in love and support.
It’s the little things.
The amount you care isn’t gauged by pomp or spectacle. A small gesture is worth a great deal. Pick a flower from the roadside. Scrawl a handwritten note. Send a Facebook message like “Hey, I’m thinking of you.” Add something to your calendar weeks ahead of time (my friends and I once scheduled a generic “something for C” event so we could show her we cared long after the initial hubbub of her diagnosis had died down).
So much thanks to Maddie. And please, readers who have gone through similar things, add your own tips and thoughts in the comments.