Recently, a good friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer. We went to see her in the hospital and talked with her and her husband. She’ll probably be all right, but will have to undergo more treatment after her surgery.
We left the hospital and walked out into a beautiful, clear, warm day. We had greatly sympathized with her and her family, since we’d been through much of the same experience with my own illness. But we were also able to leave it behind on that bright, sunny day. We went back to our own blessedly uneventful lives, thinking about grocery lists and HBO series and walks through the neighborhood.
I didn’t recall till later what it’s like to be a patient and family with a serious disease. You’re so isolated.
Around you, normal life goes on. Cars honk, people gossip, kids cry. It’s the world you used to live in — but, for the moment, you’re not a part of it.
You’re living somewhere else, with different, more painful, scary concerns. You’re worried about your own survival. You’re scared to death of treatments you’ve heard horror stories about. You no longer make routine plans — for next summer, say — because you have no idea what your future is.
After all these years, I’ve now been the seriously ill person and I’ve also been — too often, recently — the seriously ill person’s friend. I have a few words of advice for you when — not if — you find yourself trying to be the best friend you can be under these difficult circumstances:
1) Saying “I’m sorry you have to go through this” can be plenty. This is really a time when words don’t suffice, can’t do enough, can’t heal. But you can still express your caring simply and warmly.
2) Do not under any circumstances recount any horror stories about similar illnesses, treatments or hospital stays. (Why do I have to say something so screamingly obvious? Because I’ve learned the hard way.)
3) Don’t quiz your friend about his health habits prior to diagnosis.
4) Before you say something, ask yourself whether this will make your friend — or you — feel better. If it’s only beneficial to you, spare your friend and talk to yourself.
5) You know that wonder cure you just read about? Your friend’s probably already heard about it from 38 other people. And, odds are, it’s not such a wonder and it’s not a cure. Research centering on rats, in particular, is of little interest if your friend is not a rodent.
6) Join my worldwide ban on bromides like, “They say everything happens for a reason” or “They say your attitude is the only thing that counts.” I think “they” should shut up.
7) Be sensitive to your friend’s mood and needs. Maybe a funny story about a trivial incident is exactly what she needs. Or maybe it will remind her that her own daily life is now completely out of control and far beyond the trivial. You can find out a lot about a person’s mood by simply watching her and being attentive to what’s going on at the moment.
8) Cancer isn’t contagious. If you know a person well enough, a simple touch on the hand can be reassuring.
9) Please, please don’t tell your sick friend how she should be feeling or what she should be saying. Just let her talk and feel exactly as she needs to right now. When I was sick, I had the great gift of a friend who would listen to me rant and complain; she never judged me or corrected me, she just listened. This is something I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life.
10) Sometimes, when life has dealt a cruel blow, friends fade away. If you’re close to someone, don’t be that kind of a person. You’re better than that.
(copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)