How many times have we said this, written it on a card, spoken these words genuinely? Or conversely, been on the receiving end of these words as they are spoken to us? What can I do to help?
While all is well with me and within my own house, at one time it was not. And now, there seems to be a startling rash of catastrophic diagnosis all around me, involving my friends, my family and others who I care deeply for.
In a departure from my norm, I am writing today about what are heart wrenching situations that are simply a part of living. There are moments when all that can be felt is helpless desperation– for those dear to us, as well as ourselves.
The year is still young but already I have attended too many funerals, heard news of too many devastating diagnosis, freak injuries, life changing illnesses and emergency surgeries. There are also instances of loss all around that are not so obvious–jobs, addictions, nasty divorces, financial devastation, ill treatment, and parental heartbreaks of every sort–both expected and unimaginable. There is, simply put, too much sadness going around. And when it’s close to us, if we can speak at all…we often say those words:
I’m so sorry. Let me know if you need anything. What can I do to help?
Let me pull up my pink soap box for a moment.When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2008, I needed a lot of help. I wanted a lot of things. But I was so overwhelmed by trying to make it through the next breath without crying, I didn’t have room in my head to think of what specific things I could ask for. Don’t get me wrong, hearing the above words from family and friends was much appreciated. I felt the genuine concern behind what they were saying and I was grateful for it. But I couldn’t respond. I was burning up every neuron I owned just trying to keep going in a forward direction. I was scared to death…not so much about what could happen to me, but about how much this was hurting my family right now.
There were the crazy things that only my heart knew. Like my wish to wake up as Dorothy had without the Ruby Slippers on my feet, realizing that none of it was real at all. I longed to be a 4 year old again, wrapped in the loving arms of my dear Gramcracker, covered in dog hair, wearing all the jewelry my hands could grab with black garden dirt under my nails from playing “dig to China” under the grape arbor. And I desperately wanted to find relief from the nagging pain I couldn’t put aside as I ached for God to answer my list of questions that all began with “Why?”
Your head does crazy stuff to you. It demands you to give it the impossible, the ridiculous and the immediate gratification of “this” being only a cruel trick of the mind…a dream…a hallucination…a mistake.
It also straps a mask across your face and listens to all of the rah-rah encouragement, clings to the assuring words on cards, and holds a stiff upper lip to not scare others around us. Those closest to us are the ones we most want to protect from the horror show inside of us. We want to spare them from knowing how scared we feel, how little we trust, and how very angry and tortured we’re feeling.
And then there is the jealousy, and the guilt for all the feelings dancing around it. The friend standing before me, holding a lasagna and a handful of posies with a greeting card hand-picked for its uplifting verse doesn’t know shit about how I feel, or how dark every corner of my being feels. In that same moment I feel badly that I had the ingratitude to even let those kind of thoughts cross through my mind. Clearly, everything that isn’t already broken within me, is upside down. What a mess. What a pitiable, hurting mess I am.
With rare exception, we have all been there, or will be one day–whether as the one wounded or the one struggling to help. I would like to offer up a list of things that I wish I would have had the sense to ask for during those dark times. This comes from what I’ve learned to do for my friends who are hurting. I have the luxury of distance from my darkness- that luxurious distance is called “survival.” And what I learned from it is that the overwhelming sense of helplessness we feel when faced with death, dying, disaster or any true midnight of the soul, can only be eased by allowing others a chance to help us.
So Here’s Mom’s List, I hope it will help you when you find yourself sincerely wanting to help, but being without direction from your loved one, friend, or neighbor. And, if you are the one in need, please help another by asking to be helped in one of these ways. It is not weakness, it is a sign of dignity and strength. To those who are on the giving end, it is not a burden to help, it is a relief knowing there really is something real to be done to ease a loved one’s suffering during a terrible time.
If you are wanting to help, here are simple things that you can do~
As my friend, let me tell you my story. This is so important! Processing this hurtful thing helps me heal it in my heart. It helps me to make peace with, if not sense of what is going on. As a family stands next to a casket in a receiving line, they speak the story of who they loved and knew in many different pieces. Undertakers and therapists have long known that this is an important step in the grief process. This repetitive talk therapy carries the buried grief out into the air from the places we want to hide it and pretend it’s not true.
This same talking helps cancer patients, their family members, victims of violence, returning troops, displaced workers, parents fighting their child’s self inflicted harm, death, mental illness or drug addiction…the list goes on. Everyone needs an outlet for their story. You don’t have to have answers, just compassion. You shouldn’t offer up knee jerk solutions or opinions, just hear what I have to say. Fight back your urge to say things like–“Oh, you mustn’t think like that, everything will be Okay.” Because I won’t believe it, the words are trite, and I won’t feel you are honoring my pain and fear–your good intentions will be useless. After listening, then hold these things in a pact of confidence if that is what is asked for. Gossip, exaggeration, blame-placing, doomsday predictions, opining what is not yours to have an opinion on is all very cruel.
Comfort and help my Loved ones. I am sick, but they are exhausted with worry. They spend sleepless nights, hours at my bedside, double up their workload to pick up what I can no-longer do. All while trying to stay proficient at their own job, or maintain their grades and get rides to where they need to be for activities. Listen to them, and try to find ways you can ease their burden. Bring them a hospital survival bag filled with the things that can make their life less miserable as they are camped at my bedside. Shuttle my kids. Pick up their cafeteria tab for the week at school, or deliver them a weeks’ worth of lunches packed up and ready to go. Give them wake up calls. Be sure the football pants get laundered, the mail comes in from the mailbox, and the pets have food and are cared for.
Offer to “be there” by temporarily adopting one of my kids or my spouse. This one of course goes without saying…if the wife is ill, her husband should be “adopted” by a friend who is also a husband–and vice-versa. Don’t inadvertently add to my worries! Commit to calling or texting your adopted person every day. Check in with them.Get to know them, let them tell the story of how they’re feeling--how this is for them.
Be there for them by acting as the bridge between normal and what is happening. Trust me, they don’t have a tether to the ground right now. The rug beneath their feet has been jerked out from under them too.
Don’t let them miss anything they love because the person who is usually in that role can’t be there to remind them or accompany them to the game. Go to Target after school and get science fair poster boards. Become the official driver my daughter’s volleyball practice, pick up my carpool, take my kid to lunch on Saturday, do homework with them, take them to the mall, ask about their day.
Perhaps the hardest one~ if I have passed–help my spouse by rounding up suits for the boys to wear to my services. They grow so fast. Don’t forget shoes. Check in with the girls too, but chances are, they’re in better shape clothing-wise. And if my spouse has nothing to wear, and is in no shape to go out in public, go shopping yourself with sizes in hand and buy three or four outfits for them to try on at home. Return what doesn’t work. If your budget won’t allow this, gather a group of wardrobe helpers together to divvy up the expenditures or final cost.
Do the quiet, unseen small things, and be specific about what your plan is. Remember, I am simply not able to “ask” because filling your very loving need to help just isn’t something I have the space in my heart or head for right now.Tell me to leave the back door open on Tuesday afternoons so I can stop by to run the vacuum and do your laundry. Or let me be in charge of changing trash bags and wheeling the garbage to the curb for the next day’s pick up. Maybe offer to scoop the litter box twice a week, take the dog for a run, or put his flea and tick medicine on monthly. Bring over your son’s football team to mulch the flower beds this spring. If you’re my neighbor, snow-blow my driveway or cut my grass without saying a word. Sneak over and put a fresh planter full of seasonal annuals on my front porch.
Go to the grocery, or through your own pantry and make up a bag full of the irritating-to-run-out-of stuff for daily living. Things like paper towels, trash bags, feminine products, chap stick, dish soap, TP, sandwich bags, coffee filters, Q-Tips, a Sudoku book or anything else that can sit quietly on the front porch without spoiling until someone comes home to take it inside.
Most importantly, don’t do more than one or two of these things yourself. Work in cooperation with others. Doing too much, even when it comes from the heart, seems invasive. Doing nothing makes you feel awful and helpless like you are standing on the sidelines wringing your quite capable hands. I don’t like feeling helpless and out of control–no matter on which side of the equation I’m currently sitting.
By writing this, I guess I hope a lot of things. I hope that it will be helpful if you use it. I hope that this list can spark some ideas tailored to your own unique situation. I hope it helps you to understand needing help, but not being able to pinpoint how or where. I hope you can print it off and hand it to your friends and family when you can’t speak these words by yourself. I hope you’ll step around your pride and allow others the comforting feeling of being able to do something helpful. I hope you can hand it to a loved one and ask them to kindly circle what would help them most.
But mostly, I hope you never need to use this list