You hear her saying it:
…cancer… bones… abdomen… lymph nodes…
Your brain reluctantly processes the horrible words.
Oh God, no!
You’re standing by the kitchen window. Phone clutched in your hand. Mercilessly catapulted out of your safe world.
Heart-breaking pictures of clinical rooms, sickening treatments and exhausted people fly through your mind. Your friend is in a great trouble.
Her life is coming to an end.
When my friend Ann was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I felt out of breath. I was gasping for air as if punched in my stomach.
“What shall I say to her?”
I didn’t know.
When Meaning Well Turns Wrong
Our good intentions sometimes bring turmoil into our friends’ lives.
What do people with cancer perceive as hurtful? What do they find helpful?
Here’s what I’ve learned…
• Tell her that you know what she is going through: “I know exactly how you feel”. No, you don’t. We are all unique. Even suffering from the same illness, we have different experiences.
• Say what she should or shouldn’t feel: “Feel strong!” or “Don’t worry”. She has the right to her own feelings.
• Exclaim “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Because it makes a bad situation worse. Believe me, I’ve seen it.
• Dismiss the reality and encourage false hope, saying: “You‘ll beat it, I know!” or “I’m sure you‘ll be fine.” Yep, that’s what you may hope. But she might want to talk about her illness and looming death.
• Tell her to be a fighter: “You must be strong and fight it”. True, for some people ‘fight’ metaphors can give meaning and direction. For others they are brutal. Imagine someone holding a knife to your throat. You’re crippled with angst. How easy is it to be a hero? Yep. You don’t want to put extra weight on her shoulders.
• Talk about your own, your mother’s or some bloody celebrity’s illness. It is not what she wants to hear right now.
• Offer advice: “You should try this and that”; “Have you done such and such?” or “I just know what you should do”. You can’t solve this problem.
• Change the subject: “Have I told you, my boss is a total nutter?” or “By the way, how is your husband coping?” Her feelings are important now. Other people’s feelings can wait.
• Turn your back on her. Staying away is the worst option when she needs you.
Feeling fearful and awkward is human. But let me tell you something:
IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU.
Repeat it as a mantra, and it‘ll keep you from hurting your friend.
Mindful Things to Say
So you’re standing there with a phone in your hand, trying not to screw up. Feverishly searching for the right thing to say. You’re overwhelmed, and nothing comes to your mind.
Simply admit: “I don’t know what to say, love.”
Tell her you to find it hard to talk about illness: “I need some time to process. To adjust. But I want you to know that I’ll be there for you.”
… All I could say to Anne, was: “That’s crap!”
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
• Do you feel like talking? I’m here to listen.
• Do you want me just listen or do you want my advice?
• Crap! What are we going to do about it?
• What are you thinking of doing? Tell me how I can help.
• How are you feeling?
• How are you coping?
Be sure to sound like you, not like a manual for caretakers.
Be prepared for a range of responses. She might talk or fall silent. She might change the subject or start crying. Hang in there!
Let her decide how much she wants to share. Sometimes Ann talks briefly about her last treatment. The other day we chatted happily about old times, for an hour. And some days she retreats into herself, too exhausted to talk. That’s fine, too.
When she talks, I’m all ears. I ask specific questions like “How did they change your chemo, again?” I keep eye contact.
Have you ever felt angry, sad and overwhelmed by your friend’s illness? I know. Go ahead, tell her. Show how much your care. BUT be brief and calm. Don’t overload her with your own emotions.
Don’t be afraid of tears. Cry with her when she cries.
When Words Are Redundant
Words are not the only way to say how much you care.
Use your body language to show you see her pain. Take her hand or give her a hug. Brush her hair or polish her nails. We all need a human touch. Skin-to-skin contact is incredibly healing. It makes us happier, healthier and less anxious.
How to Be
Be your usual self.
You might think: “Easier said than done.” I know.
What helps me is to remember Ann is still the same person. Between hospital treatments, pains and worries, she needs to feel normal. I visualize us walking through the fields, passing farmhouses, enjoying the afternoon sun. When we used to go out for walks, she knew all dogs on the road and greeted each of them with a treat.
And when I first moved to Denmark, I remember how kind and supportive Ann was. She made me feel welcome. How we danced, laughed and were just silly.
I want to treat her as I always have.
Everyone needs a break from illness. She does, so do you.
Cheer up with humour and laughter. They are whopping tonics for the immune system. Find a funny book or buy her favourite magazines, and read them together. Or watch comedies of her choice.
Talk about your happiest memories. Like that trip on horseback in Highlands, remember? That “I’ll-give-you-a-peace-of-my-mind” -guide with a hilarious accent, nobody really got? Or your wedding day with her as your bridesmaid? That crazy night all those years ago.
Dress up like you used to. Make fun of each other!
Helpful Things to Do
Offer her practical help, if you can. Be concrete. “I’m going to a grocery store. What can I bring for you?” or “I’ll pick you up a quarter to two. We’re going for a ride” instead of a general “What can I do for you?” – question. Gathering thoughts might not be easy for her.
Bake or buy her favourite cake and bring it to her. Have coffee together. Or offer to take her car to a carwash, and give her a ride when she needs one.
Don’t take it personally if she says: “Thanks but no”. She might feel sick. Ask again another day.
Send her a text or an email. Write something like: “I miss your company” or “I’m thinking of you”. Sometimes I attach photos to a text to Ann. A King Charles spaniel puppy, storming down a slope, leaving a whirl of dead leaves behind. Crocus and snowdrops in my garden, an explosion of blue and white. Or just a weirdly shaped tree. She answers with smiles and hearts.
Send her a handwritten postcard with a meaningful note like I sent Ann last year: “Regatta has started today. Remember this Frigate? I’m thinking of you.”
Grab the Opportunity to Grow
We all die. Eventually.
But being aware of an inevitable end is a strong enticement to live consciously, isn’t it?
You love your friend and care about her. So make sure she knows it. Never fall out of her life because it’s hard for you. A brief visit, a call or a postcard – everything is better than leaving her wondering why you’ve vanished.
Remember, feeling awkward talking to an ill friend is normal. Like feeling anxious and angry about her imminent death.
Look your fears in the eye, and learn from this experience. You’ll become one lesson richer, wiser and stronger.
Your heart is in the right place.
Images: Stock-snap.io; Pixabay