I just found out that my close friend’s mother has cancer. They have been good family friends since high school. She is undergoing intensive chemotherapy as I write this and I am really sad about it. Can I do anything to help? I don’t know what my place is, do I call? Write? Email? Who do I support, my friend or the family, and how?
Thank you so much for asking this important question. Cancer touches all of our lives and finding ways to navigate illness and friendship can be very difficult. My first words of advice are to follow your heart. This sounds simple and obvious, but it is often the last thing we remember to do in these situations. Where does your instinct take you? To comforting your friend? To sending your love to their mother? Or do you feel the need to care for yourself first?
When people are sick, they are generally terrified and in pain. This is a horrible combination, and often horrifying for the onlooking community members. The greatest thing you can do for someone who is suffering is to be fearless. This means looking at their broken heart, their decaying body, their excruciating suffering and being able to see it without balking.
This is a tall order and very few people can handle it. It means smiling even when someone is coughing up blood, seeing their beauty and not shying away in fear of their and your mortality. This translates quite simply to caring for yourself so you can care for others. Fearlessness comes when we feel safe in our bodies, in our communities and in our minds. This means that in order to be there for your friend and their family you need to up your own self-care so that when they come to you crying, you have the strength to hold them up.
So. My simpler advice on caring for the families of those suffering from cancer: be dependable, be kind, and be real. If you can’t handle the gruesome elements of physical decay, stay on the periphery with consistent phone calls, e-mails, letters or packages, checking in regularly. This doesn’t need to be “hey, how is dealing with the demise of your mother’s life?” but more, “how was your day?”
A simple and regular conversation goes a very long way; it offers a safe place to be normal. It shows your friend that you are there, to experience all elements of life, the ups, the downs, and the in-betweens. This is the first thing you can do for your friend, and by extension, for their mother.
The only rule with phoning the sick/suffering is that you can’t need anything in that call. Your job, when they are ill or grieving, is to give and be strong so they can feel normal and at peace. This doesn’t mean always asking and probing, just not needing. It means keeping your end light, and their end however they want it to be. ie, if they want to hear about your problems, share, but let things be on their terms and expect nothing in return, not gratitude, not kindness, nothing.
All their energy will be going towards staying alive. So when you call, prep yourself in advance. Make sure your tears have already been shed, your back already rubbed. We are there, when people are suffering and dying, to comfort, not to be comforted.
Other things: send a simple e-mail, “I love you.” Send little packages of things, be a bright light in their dark days. Imagine what cheered you up when you were down, or what you wished for, and offer up your dream friendship to another. Send cards, drawings, thoughts and gifts. Just let them know, in a million ways, that you are thinking of them, that you value their life, and that you can handle the gruesome underbelly of humanity.
Again, a fearless face when you are terrified can be nearly angelic. Smile, be positive, don’t be afraid to open and wield your heart. Someone in pain ALWAYS recognizes goodness and kindness, even if at the time they don’t have the words to show it.
For other ideas, or ways to help cancer patients:
E-mail any questions, fears or concerns to the live support group at the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Call 1-800-813-HOPE to help yourself with your own grief/sadness so you can help them. This is a free service from CancerCare.org.
Volunteer for or steal ideas from ChemoBuddyClub.com and ChemoAngels.com.
Read these tips from cancer survivors on how to be there for a friend in chemo.
Search the Shared Experience Cancer Support Database for online answers to all your questions from first hand accounts.