I've been contemplating writing on this topic for a couple of days, wondering how to tread softly so I don't sound bitchy and snarky because I really don't intend to be. And then I went and did exactly what I was going to warn about.
A week or so ago, on one of the email lists where I've been a member for over a decade, the topic of how to approach someone who you have just found out has a terminal illness arose (that's an awkward sentence and perhaps I shall revise it at some point, but not now). Basically, how do you send that email or make that phone call that says, "Hey, I heard you are on the sucky ends of things right now...and I haven't been in touch for a while."
Now, I'm sure there are people reading this right now who had to make that same call to me. I can think of a few. It's never comfortable. In fact, in many ways, it's easier to ignore those calls and emails. Except, when I ignore them, then being remiss niggles at the back of my mind and I get no relief. But, what do you say?
Having worked with grieving parents in the past, I know that "this sucks" works. When I have students who lose parents or siblings, I always instruct their classmates to go with "I'm sorry" as a starter. I know that it can get annoying to have people "I'm sorrying" you all the time, but that sure is better than many other options. Yes, "I'm sorry" gets old. But really, I *am* sorry that bad things happen to others. "I'm sorry" may seem not enough in the face to significant adversity, but, unless you are on quite close terms with someone, "That fucking blows chunks" doesn't seem to be quite appropriate, either. "It's unfair" might be adequate, if we didn't always follow that up in other circumstances with "Life isn't fair."
To be fair, life and death are not fair, and knowing that doesn't make accepting it any easier. It's NOT fair that after 13 years of breastfeeding, I have breast cancer. Knowing life and cancer aren't fair doesn't make me feel any less cheated by that fact. So, I'll take "I'm sorry" over "It's not fair" any day.
And we all know that people faced with crisis--physical, mental, or emotional--need help. And we all know that we are supposed to say, "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help...anything at all. I'm good for it." And we all really mean it when we say it. However, in a time of crisis, the person who needs help may not always know what he or she needs. Worse, people in crisis may not even be able to decide what to ask for. Seriously. What is more important? To ask for help with meals or transportation? What if you call in your chits and then need more? What if you work up your nerve and ask for help, and that is the one time the person you ask truly is busy and can't help?
This is what I did today. I told a friend facing a huge family issue, "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help."
Really? Who is going to turn to the cancer lady for help? I am capable of providing help. Life sucks for me today and will for the early part of this week, but will improve over the rest of the month and by the time my friend's son is hospitalized for extensive and serious surgery, I'll be on top of what passes for my game these days. Instead, what I should have done is been concrete. I should have said, "Hey, get Nathan on the 'drive kids places' list...he can run errands for you or drop your other kids off at friends' houses while you are tied up at the hospital" or "how about if you drop some laundry off over here the week before his surgery on your way to work and let us do it for you" or "here's a gift card for food to be delivered to you on those days you are at the hospital with your son."
Let me know what I can do to help? This is a highly competent family. They will cover their bases. "Letting people know" takes energy and effort. I need to step up and make their lives easier, not more challenging.
And many, many people have stepped up making our lives easier in the last 2.5 months. It is 100% wonderful to just go pull a frozen meal from the freezer...one of the many that friends packed in there. It's 100% wonderful to have friends come in and clean after each round of chemo. It's 100% wonderful that meals are brought in. Abso-frickin-lutely. When I complained about cold feet, three colleagues gifted me with Smartwool socks. Wondertubulous.
Last week, I got the sweetest email from a friend. In it, she said, "I want to give you a care package, but I don't know you well enough to know what you'd appreciate the most." Then she listed four or five options. How wonderful! It's not that I don't love surprises. I do. Love 'em to death. This friend gave me options, and at least one was something I'd thought about but never done and something I certainly would NEVER have felt comfortable asking for. It was just too indulgent to ask for, even if I'd thought of it. At least in my mind.
Maybe it is me and my warped little mind. I grew up with a wonderfully loving, yet highly Puritanical, mother. She never wanted to be a burden on anyone, and in fact, frequently wouldn't ask for help when any reasonable person would do so. When she did ask for help, she frequently felt guilty for doing so. Perhaps that rubbed off on me in ways I'm not always fully aware. I feel like I do ask for help a lot, maybe more than many of my friends do (or more than they ask me). I'm guessing, though, that if someone told me to ask them if I needed a ride to an appointment, I'd only do so as a last resort; however, if someone said, "What time would you like me to pick you up..." or called and said, "Hey, how are you feeling...want me to come by..." I'd be more likely to accept. For one, I don't have to worry about "what to say" if they decline my request for help.
In many ways, our society is so disjointed, that we don't know what to say when things are uncomfortable, from how to ask for help to how to decline help graciously. When I have to tell people I have cancer, and they respond "I'm sorry," do you know what I usually say? The dumbest thing in the world..."that's OK."
Really? That's the best I can come up with? It's not ok. What the hell does "That's OK" even mean in that context? It's ok that you are sorry? Don't be sorry, it isn't your fault? I'm OK? What the hell. I always want to slap myself. That's ok. Shut up, Dawn. Would "thank you" be more appropriate? Probably.
Worse yet are those of us who are just too dang sensitive. Those of us who take what others say very literally and are unable to see awkward utterances as well intentioned. As my one friend recently wrote:
I remember when a friend was struggling with pregnancy losses and infertility, and it truly seemed that every answer was the wrong one. Her blog cataloged all the stupid things her friends and family members said, and while some were of the "Oh it's just God's plan" variety, others seemed well intentioned and honest. I remember one even being what most BTDT accounts *recommended* that people should say. But she was equally angry when people said nothing. I really cared about her and did not want to make her pain worse, but every approach seemed to make her more unhappy.
I really think that many of us are so out of touch that we just can't get beyond ourselves. Sure, when my babies died, some people said some horrible things. I think the worst was, "What did you do?" as if I'd done something myself to lead to a 41 week stillbirth. And of course, "It's all a learning experience." Really, because I learn really well without hands on shit like my baby dying or getting cancer. Really. I can learn from books and video, discussion and writing. Outside the heat of the moment, though, we have to rise above thoughtless comments and realized that when we are overly sensitive, we isolate ourselves and no one is better off. Possibly this is all due to being uncomfortable with strong emotions. We worry about making others feel worse, but at times when they already feel bad, how much worse can we make them feel? Do you think I don't think about having cancer most of every hour of every day? It's always there. If you want to hear about it, I'm happy to talk about it. In yet another parallel to childbirth and pregnancy, if you have cancer long enough, you get over inhibitions quickly. I've been poked, prodded, felt up, jabbed, looked at, scanned, radiated, over and over again. I'll talk about boobs with anyone at this point. It's not like I don't realize people aren't wondering...are they still there? What's going on? It's not an esoteric disease. It's discussed on Weeds. It has a whole month of the year devoted to it. Boob pink is all over the place this month.
Shortly after my mother died, a friend saw me on campus and admitted she didn't know what to say and that she worried that if she said anything, she'd upset me. So, she'd been avoiding me for three days (we used to walk past each other between classes). I appreciated her honesty. But it wasn't like I was leaving my classroom two weeks after my mother's death having forgotten that my mother was dead. Still, a year and a half later, just writing about that time brings tears to my eyes. I think of her daily, multiple times a day. Maybe we all need to get over ourselves and realize we aren't that powerful...we don't control what others think. Yet, we are that powerful. We do contribute to how others feel.
I'd much rather someone call me and say, "Hey, I've been thinking of you...what's up?" and let me take the lead....let me talk about how my 9 year old is freaking out at the thought of my breasts being sliced off or how I've been enjoying the great company at soccer games this year. Let me talk about how fekkin' tired I am all the damn time or what the hell is going to happen when my husband loses his job. Or maybe just let me talk about how funny Zombieland was and how I laughed until I about peed my pants watching it. Anything is better than pretending that nothing in my life has changed. I'm not going to forget we are on the brink of financial disaster, I have cancer, I face multiple surgeries in the next few months, or that I could have given my kids the "cancer gene." Those things aren't going to go away. No matter what you don't say, I'll still be thinking about them.
And believe me, if you want to do something to help me or my family, feel free. Step right up. It will be greatly appreciated. Trust me on that. But I'm not always able to ask or suggest ways for you to help.