Helping others through a difficult time

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Last year was the worst year of my uncle’s life. He lost his brother and then he lost his mother within the space of a few weeks. An abdominal condition kept him in terrible pain and prevented him from eating properly for months until an operation removed a large portion of his intestines. All of this happening under the cloud of COVID which cost his wife. But worst hit of all came just before Christmas. He knew something was wrong and his doctor confirmed his worst fears – cancer.

Now, my uncle is a strong man. All my life he’s been a take charge kind of guy. The one who was always ready to drive out into a blizzard to help jumpstart my stranded car, who helps put in new floors, who always is the focus of attention during family events thanks to his big laugh and tall tales. When I came by around New Years to say hi for the holidays though, I barely recognized the man staring back at me through the screen door. I hadn’t seen him for months and now here he was, ashen, gaunt, and quiet. The year just hollowed him out. He was in such obvious, terrible pain.

And truth be told, it paralyzed me.

When we see a family member or friend in pain, it can sometimes be overwhelming. We spend so much time gliding through typical conversation, the standard exchange of "how are you doing?” "Oh, I’m fine” it’s not always clear what to do when the script changes and it’s clear someone is suffering. The fact is there is no roadmap that will work for every situation, but there are a few things that you could keep in mind when someone in your life needs your help and support.

Nobody expects a cure

One thing you need to break free from right away is the need to "say the right thing.” That terrible internalized pressure to say something that will be immediately comforting or provide closure for your friend. When someone is dealing with a serious blow like cancer or a miscarriage there is simply nothing you or anyone could say that would make that feel okay. It’s an impossible task and if you feel you can’t talk to your friend until you know just what to say, you’ll never speak with them again.

But here is the good news, your friend or family member doesn’t expect you to know what to say. Flip the situation, if you just experienced a terrible loss or received life changing news, would you expect your friends to make it all better with a single conversation? No. In fact, the idea would probably seem insulting. You would probably just want your friends to be there for them to listen and share. So, do that. Be the person who is there to listen, talk, and share. Don’t play repairman.

Show up

The number one best thing you can do for a friend in pain is to simply be there. This can look like a lot of things depending on the situation. Obviously in-person contact is best. There is nothing that will replace the reassurance of a loving hug and a sympathetic shoulder to lean on. But sometimes when someone is hurting, they might not be ready for that, and during a global pandemic, that might not be possible.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t be there. A simple text message checking in can help remind them they are not alone. An email, a phone call, a hand-written note left in their mailbox. All of these are great ways to make sure your friend has a lifeline they can call on. Keep the lines of communication open for when they are ready to talk.

Don’t wait to be asked

The thing about being hurt is that it knocks you out and leaves you empty. Everyday tasks seem unbearable or pointless. Simple questions become as difficult to respond to as an algebra exam. You may be tempted to ask a friend "what can I do?” and even though there are 50 things they could probably use help with they’ll answer "I don’t know” because they can’t focus on anything but their pain.

Instead of waiting on them to tell you what they need, try to anticipate their needs and what would help them. A covered meal can be a Godsend to a family overburdened with hospital visits and stress. If you can’t cook, give them some gift cards for their favorite take-out spot. COVID permitting, offer to give them a ride to an appointment, or to be there with them. Shovel out their driveway after a snowfall without being asked or take care of mowing the lawn so they don’t have to sweat it. Whatever you can contribute, big or small, it will be greatly appreciated. 

Don’t forget the kids while you’re at it. When mom and dad are hurting or dealing with a major issue, it’s easy for their children to suddenly feel rudderless. Most kids are used to being the focus of concern and attention around the house and it’s not easy to adjust when mom suddenly needs to go to the doctor’s office all the time and dad is worn down to the nub taking on extra responsibilities to keep the family going. A small gift like a Netflix card or credits for their favorite game/system can help keep them occupied and provide some welcome relief for their parents.

When I was very small, my mom had a serious health scare. A virus suddenly compromised her normally healthy heart and she was hospitalized for several days. When she came home she was very weak. I remember my aunt and uncle took us kids out for a night just to give her a break. We went out to one of our favorite restaurants, Kenny Roger’s Roasters (a big deal at the time usually reserved for birthdays). Not only did we eat our fill, our uncle also ordered an extra helping of chicken to take home and enjoy the next day (an outlandish extravagance to us, total boss move). We went back to their place and played a few games of NHL Face Off on his cutting-edge PlayStation, laughing and hollering as we fumbled with the new controller and spent more time cross-checking the air than anything else. It was a night of fun we desperately needed during a very dark time, and one that I still remember fondly to this day. 

That is the power of being there and stepping up. A simple meal and a few laughs can leave a lifetime impression when someone really needs a hand. When you have a loved one or friend in need, you don’t need to do anything fancy, just being there and offering support can make more of a difference than you can imagine.

I don’t know if there are any Kenny Rogers Roasters left any more, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t play games anymore, but you can be sure I’m going to try and find a way to repay the favor to my uncle all these years later now that he is the one in need. 

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