Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to be a friend to someone with cancer...

I was recently privy to a conversation about living with cancer: this from a friend of a cancer patient, discussing what she, as a close friend walking beside a stage 4 patient, needed.  One of the things she mentioned took me by surprise: that she needed someone outside of her friend with cancer to unload to about the stresses and griefs of walking beside that friend with cancer.  Having been somewhere in the middle of cancer for myself or my husband or my mom for the last 20 or so years, it had never occurred to me that there could be a need of those in the next circle out from the patient that I hadn't considered! It was good to know that I can be an indirect support for a cancer patient by supporting their friends.

And then the question came: what do cancer patients need from their friends?   I have been pondering this, and while I'm sure there are more answers to this question than the ones I'll list here, these are the ones that readily came to mind.  These are the ones that I'd want my friends to know.  If you have others, please post them in the comments. I'd love to hear them. Here are my top 10, in no particular order:
  1. Pray for me.  Pray every day.  As you pray for me, God changes your heart towards me, and His Spirit gives you a tenderness for me that you could not otherwise experience.  Then, when you see me, I will know you love me, and that you are praying for me.  When Dave was sick, many people in a sister church in Albuquerque prayed fervently for him, though they had never met us.  We knew those people when we met them.  They couldn't hide their love for us, wrought by prayer.  So pray for my healing, but also pray because it will make your heart tender.
  2. If you don't know what to say, not wanting to bring up the "C" word in case I am not thinking about it, don't worry.  I am always thinking about it on some level.  You can just give me a hug and say nothing, or you can go ahead and ask a question, or tell me you're praying for me.  Any of those things tell me you care. If your choice is between saying something that might be foolish and staying away so you don't have to decide, please say something foolish.  There is a sort of isolation that can happen when friends don't know what to say, and so they steer clear. That feels terrible. Don't steer clear of me.  It's OK if you don't know what to say.  Just keep being my friend.
  3. Do avoid platitudes.  "God has a wonderful plan for your life" is perfectly true, but it rings empty.  It is the promises of God in His word that are substantive and bring encouragement.  So DO jot down scripture verses that you think might encourage me.  DO send me notes from time to time to let me know you are with me in the struggle. Those things will bring encouragement.
  4. Also avoid horror stories.  You may have an aunt who died a grizzly death from the same kind of cancer I have, but please keep that to yourself.  If that is all you can think of when you see me, just hug me and smile at me.
  5. We all have circles of friends- some are our closest confidants, and others are good friends, but more distant friends.  If you are in my closest circle of friends, be aggressive in keeping contact. You won't be forcing me into things to keep offering time together or phone calls.  I need to rally the troops around me. I need to be held accountable, encouraged, and connected.  If you are not in my closest circle of friends, offer contact, but don't be offended if I don't have the emotional energy or time to enter into a closer relationship with you at the moment.  Think about supporting those friends who were closer to me when the battle began, and are bearing the burden more fully with me. If you are a more distant friend, offer closer support, and allow me to decide without feeling dismissed.  I once offered to a distant friend whose husband was dying of cancer to be her prayer partner and sounding board.  She decided she needed that, and we walked that road together and became close friends. But sometimes, investing in newer friendships is just beyond the level of energy I posses.
  6. Support my decisions, and be careful with offering alternatives.  If you read about some nutritional supplements, or alternate way of treating my disease, I will likely want to hear about it.  Send me an e-mail, or give me a web site to look at.  Then allow me to look at that information or ignore it as I would like.  I will appreciate your thought, but I am in the midst of the battle for my life, and already fully engaged with medical and/or alternative support to fight that battle.  More information can be helpful, but it can also be overload.  Respect my decisions, and allow me to decide what I what to know when, how I want to wage my war, and what resources I will use to do so. Support those decisions even if you disagree.
  7. Tell me about your life with its joys and battles.  Just because my battle is more immediately life-threatening, does not mean I can't understand your struggles. I need to be connected to the world.  I can bring you a more long-term, eternal focus.  You can bring me the wonder and joys and struggles of life outside of hospitals and doctor's offices.
  8. Understand that what I'm going through is changing everything.  It is changing my focus, my priorities, my outlook.  It is making it both necessary and painful to walk into church and know that these people I love and who love me are heart-broken because of me.  This disease is shaping not only me, but also my children, my family, and my friends just as God wants them to be shaped, but I am His instrument of pain in their lives.  It is also forcing the rubber to meet the road in terms of my faith.  Do the things I have always believed prove to be true in this place of testing? Are they enough to carry me where I must go? These all make me very vulnerable. Try to cut me some slack, give me the space to grieve what is lost, and learn to trust God in my new circumstances.
  9. Do be willing to listen to my fears and let me talk honestly without hushing me by saying, "Don't talk like that!"  I need to speak things out loud sometimes, and if I choose to speak them to you, don't feel like you need to have an answer for me.  I am simply processing and speaking aloud those things that can be even more frightening if kept in the depths of my heart.  Listen. Hold my hand. There are often no "good answers" where I am, outside of God's sovereign hand leading and guiding, and sometimes I need to talk through things to find my way back to Him.
  10. Don't feel like you have to always be brave and cheerful to bolster me.  Sometimes seeing your pain for me, or having you cry with me, is the medicine I need. I discovered a long time ago that if God is sovereign over all things, He is sovereign over tears as well-- both when they fall, and in front of whom they fall. So we can trust Him, even with our emotions.
I will end this already-too-lengthy post with a short song by Charlie Peacock that captures something important about times of grief and pain.  Below is the recording from the album Coram Deo, and the lyrics are below.

Now is the time for tears
Don’t speak
Save your words
There’s nothing you could say
To take this pain away
Don’t try so hard
You can just simply be
Cry with me don’t try to fix me friend
That’s how you’ll comfort me
Heavenly Father cover this child with mercy
You are my helper through this time of trial and pain
Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers
Gently show them now is the time
Now is the time
Now is the time for tears


Amy in MD said...

Thank you my sweet sister. These are words I need to hear. I am sorry I haven't been assertive (never mind aggressive) in showing my love and support of you. Many tears have been shed in pray for you and your dear family here in MD.

Love and miss you,


MagistraCarminum said...

Sweet Amy, and others who will be tempted to take this as criticism-- nothing could be further from my mind! I relaly was meaning these as "positives" for folks to think about, not as reprimands for my dear friends. I feel supported and loved and overwhelmed by God's goodness to me through His people!
I love and miss you, too, and have not felt neglected by you in the least!

ikceb said...

Love you, Chris! You never stop encouraging me even when my deepest desire is to encourage you.


Amy in MD said...

I really wasn't feeling criticized. I was only constructively encouraged by my own conscience :D

Very much enjoy see ing pictures of little Ada and Emma. They are so beautiful!