I was talking with a dear friend the other day. We were discussing stress and health and friendships. When an individual is experiencing persistent stress, or a traumatic event, you can tell a lot about their friends by how they act and react. Stress separates the wheat from the chaff (in friendships). Not all “friends” are created equal.
My friends know I’ve spent far too much of my life visiting loved ones in hospitals and at the doctors’. My closest friends could probably recite each incident! I got an early start in life having to cope with these visits. Through all of them, I’ve had a core group of friends that held me up while I watched others suffer. My close friends are not the type that say, “Oh, I’m so sorry” and wander off. They’re not the “It’ll be OK” type. My closest friends are the ones that call and offer the sun, the moon, and the stars – or an evening out! That behavior, to me, defines friendship.
I realize everyone is different, and some people are uncomfortable with doctors and hospitals. I also realize some people just don’t know how to act and react when someone they’re friends with gets bad news or is ill. I, unfortunately, know how to react in these situations. It’s been drilled into me from encounters with loved ones with heart problems, strokes, and cancer. I’m not going to say it came easily, but it came.
A lot of times people are uncomfortable dealing with friends in these situations so they give a weak, “I’m so sorry. Let me know if there’s anything I can do” and then they totter off, grateful it isn’t happening to them. “What if I say the wrong thing?” they ask in an attempt to make themselves feel better for putting space between them and their friend’s struggles. Look, unless you’re suddenly going to lose complete control of your senses and begin babbling like an idiot, you’re not going to “say the wrong thing.” Tears and shows of emotion aren’t “the wrong thing.” It shows your friends/loved ones that you care and are concerned. That their pain weighs heavily on you. At the end of the day, remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about your friend and what you can do to offer support.
In writing this blog, I went on Cancer.Net and checked out their suggestions for supporting a friend who has cancer. It gave great advice that can be applied to any major health trauma. It was as follows:
- Give your friend space, but offer to visit whenever he or she would like.
- Make flexible plans that can be easily changed, in case something comes up or your friend needs to cancel.
- Make plans for the future—this gives your friend something to look forward to.
- Be humorous and fun when appropriate and when needed.
- Allow for sadness—do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings.
- Make time for a weekly check-in phone call. Let your friend know when you will be calling, and let your friend know that it is okay to not answer the phone.
- When you make a commitment to help, follow through. For example, if you offer to bring a meal over on Sunday, try your best not to forget (post reminders for yourself in an appropriate spot).
- Try not to let your friend’s condition get in the way of your friendship. Treat him or her the same way you always have.
- Ask about interests, hobbies, and other topics not related to cancer—people going through treatment sometimes need a break from talking about cancer.
- If you aren’t sure how to help, ask.
What to say
Here are some simple guidelines to use when talking with your friend.
I know just how you feel.
You need to talk.
I know just what you should do.
I feel helpless.
I don’t know how you manage.
I’m sure you’ll be fine.
How much time do the doctors give you?
Let me know what I can do (instead, offer specific ways in which you can help and things you can provide, should they need to call on you).
I’m sorry this has happened to you.
If you ever feel like talking, I am here to listen.
What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
I care about you.
Just remember, the key point isn’t to make yourself feel better, it’s to be there for your friend – to provide comfort and support. Real friends are there for each other, no matter what. Real friends are the ones that pick up your kids from school, bring you over dinner when you’re too ill to make it yourself, and take you out for a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on. Real friends are the wheat in life. The chaff you can do without.