Being A Light Companion On A Dark Road
I want to use this space to talk to those of you who will be asked to companion someone on a dark road – to help you help others when they are given news of a challenging and possibly frightening nature. While I’ll speak from the point of view of someone dealing with a serious health diagnosis, these words will also hold true for those faced with a mental collapse, a family crisis such as divorce or death – any situation where one’s world comes crashing down without warning
There are things – simple things — you can do with and for your friend or loved one that will make all the difference in the world. I know this: without my beloved husband, my close friends, and that army of intuitives, healers, and clients worldwide sending out prayers and affirmations, my cancer story would have been a far more troubling tale, with more “downs” and difficulties than “ups” and triumphs.
WHAT TO SAY
It’s understandable that when someone – friend or family or acquaintance – tells you “I [have cancer/diabetes/etc.] [am getting divorced] [have a crisis with my child] you want to say SOMETHING. But what often blurts out of the mouth is worse than saying nothing at all.
- “Oh my God, that’s horrible!” (They may be trying to deal with not thinking of it as horrible, but as a challenge; that reinforces the negative thoughts.)
- “How unfair!” or “Aren’t you angry?” (Same as above.)
- “You’ll be all right.” (No one has any way of knowing that yet, and it’s an empty platitude)
- “You know, I knew this friend/girl/guy etc. who had your problem, and…” (The person handling the diagnosis/situation is not really concerned with how other people handled it, their horrors and war stories, etc. It’s information that is unhelpful and might turn their thoughts to fears they did not have prior to talking with you.)
- “I am sorry you have to go through this.” (If you are.)
- “I will pray for you,” or “I will put you on my church’s prayer list.” (Please do, as long as the patient has no objections AND YOU REALLY WILL do it.)
- “What can I do to help?”
This last phrase – “what can I do to help?” — is like gold. Your friend or loved one will need help. Their family will need help. But please, don’t offer if it’s just because you don’t know what else to say. This is one of the times in life that if someone offers aid, the person in trouble will take it – and count on it. Saying you will do something and then not coming through is not only unfair, but also cruel if the person who needs you counts on you to fill a gap for them in any fashion.
WHAT TO DO
Make a concrete offer of assistance.
Please – don’t say “Just call me if you need anything.” I know from experience that the challenged person’s mind is filled with so much that even the simple task of making a phone call can be too much. Additionally, a common reaction when one is faced with a devastating illness or crisis is to curl up and hide, no matter how gregarious and outgoing one is normally. (I am a perfect example – no one could ever accuse me of being an introvert, but some of my friends had to literally knock on the door to check on me because returning calls or emails was just too much.)
If you can offer something concrete, with a concrete day and time, you become an instant hero/ine. Some examples:
- “I’ll take your kids on Saturday and they can stay overnight at my place so you can get some rest.”
- “I’ll arrange for my daughter to come walk Buddy for you after school until you’re back on your feet.”
- “I know you go grocery shopping on Wednesdays. Why don’t I pick you up for the next couple of weeks and we’ll go together?”
- “Let me set up a schedule of people to take you to your chemotherapy appointments.”
- “My vacuum cleaner and I will be over tomorrow to straighten up for you.”
Gestures like this are more cherished than you can possibly know. Most people would never ask their friends to clean their house for them, no matter how bad it got or how little strength they had. When one has been independent for years, the notion of needing help to go grocery shopping can be embarrassing and intimidating. Don’t make your friend ask; think ahead, and say it first.
Find words to inspire.
Some of the best gifts I received were books that were uplifting — not necessarily about cancer (believe me, you can get overwhelmed by all the information out there on your particular challenge), but general books that give hope, understanding and compassion. Some of my favorites are
- EMMANUEL’S BOOK (Volumes I-III) by Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton
- HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE by Barry Kaufman
- HEALING WORDS FOR THE BODY, MIND AND SPIRIT by Caren Goldman
- NO DEATH, NO FEAR: Comforting Wisdom for Life, by Thich Nhat Han
- PRAYERS FOR HEALING: 365 Blessings, Poems and Meditations from Around the World, edited by Maggie Oman
- STILL HERE by Ram Dass
- WHEN THINGS FALL APART: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
- WHERE THERE IS LIGHT by Paramahansa Yogananda
While it’s true that sometimes the mind just wants to ‘turn off’ and there’s nothing better than a good fat bad novel to distract you, these are books that one can pick up, read for a few pages, and put down refreshed. Nor are these books specifically for illness – any time one is challenged, buffeted by life, or feeling overwhelmed, the thoughts on these pages can help.
There are some things your friend or loved one will need — and some they definitely won’t. It is so terribly important that the person in crisis is listened to when they say they need something (or don’t want something else). You may think that a huge bouquet of flowers or basket of get-well items is just what the doctor ordered, while they may feel a great need for a particular brand of tomato soup from the store, or a pink plush pig, or yarn that comes in a particular weight and style – or someone to sit and tell them dirty jokes until they hiccup with laughter. It doesn’t have to make sense to you; what they are asking for has meaning for them, and has some particular magic for them to hold on to now. Please, get them what they want, not what you might want if you were in the same situation.
Listen and don’t try to fix.
This one can be SO hard, especially for the husbands and boyfriends out there! Often, when someone is going through dark places in the mind and heart, it helps to be able to verbalize what is felt. Or they may be feeling so completely alone in the pain and fear that they just want to hear another’s voice, and know that someone is listening to theirs.
And sometimes they just need to cry their eyes out. They may not even be able to tell you why.
If your friend or family member needs you, please, make time to listen. Don’t do something else while listening (this is a place where multitasking isn’t appropriate). Don’t just mumble something noncommittal if you sense a break in the conversation. Make eye contact if they need it. Listen, even if what they are saying does not make sense to you; here, that may not matter nearly as much as your holding the space for them to be heard.
The other thing is: don’t automatically try to fix what your dear one perceives is ‘wrong.’ Trying to fix something that seems overwhelming is like saying “You’ll be all right” when no one is sure that’s the case. If you want, you can ask, “Is this something I can help with, or do you just want me to listen?” Believe me, you’ll know. And that one kind sentence of understanding can do worlds to calm troubled waters of the soul.
I am by no means the last word on the subject, however, and would dearly love to hear from other folks regarding ways to help, great stories of what you did (or did not do) to walk through the darkness with your friends or family. Please take a moment to send us your stories and thoughts and use the subject line More Suggestions.