How I learned to be there for someone who is dealing with death and illness

For the past two years, I’ve been pretty silent about sharing my thoughts about sickness and death with anyone. I never wanted to admit that I was seeing someone slowly dying, especially when it was someone so close to me. The fact is, it was my first time in the front row of witnessing a person from the moment they are diagnosed with cancer to their passing. I just didn’t want to burden anyone with that knowledge.

My friend M’s mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. She similarly did not want to tell anyone, even her close friends, about it because she did not want people to “give her space” aka avoid her or feel obligated to take care of her. This is what I told her: I went through the same logical process. However, I have come to learn a lot of life lessons on dealing with grief over these years. People who truly care about you will not tell you, “Let me know if you need anything.” While that may seem to be the proper thing to say, I’ve learned that to be a cop-out response to someone telling you they are dealing with death or sickness. Honestly, I can’t count how many times I have said that to people, but after my personal experience, I will never say that sentence again. If anything, I would say, “Hey, I am here for you. Call me at any odd hour to talk about life, death, school, movies, boys. What are you doing on Wednesday? Let’s go out.” If your friend is going through difficult times, he/she probably does not know what they need or at least unsure of how to put it into words. Here are some things they do need though:

1. They need trustworthy and honest people to surround them

2. They need friends who will still ask them to go out drinking with them

3. They need friends that they can call at 3am to sob on the phone with and complain to how unfair life is

These are things they probably do not realize they need. I didn’t know I needed those things until my friends did them for me. I am lucky to have friends who showed up at my door with popcorn and a movie on a random Tuesday night, invited me to midnight McDonald trips, and without asking me (because they knew I wouldn’t let them), spent $600 on last-minute plane tickets to fly to my house in Colorado to be there at the funeral. 11 of my friends from Berkeley came just for the 3 hour funeral service. I couldn’t believe it. Perhaps I happen to have the most ridiculously generous friends in the world, but I hope that isn’t the case. I hope that all friends act proactively. So, I told M that her true friends will not take the knowledge of her mom having lunch cancer as a burden. Instead, they want to know as early as possible so they can help carry the burden.

By no means am I an expert at teaching people how to be there for people who are dealing with death/illness. However, I learned that being proactive is key because my friends showed me how through their incredible kindness.

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7 responses to “How I learned to be there for someone who is dealing with death and illness

  1. Thought provoking article.
    I am extremely guilty of using the “call me” line.   Have to say also that sometimes, just sometimes, I actually dread having to talk people through their problems.
    I have seen death and the greiving process my entire life.
    I will try to be more proactive in these things in future.
    And I wasn’t going to make new year resolutions…

    • Thanks for reading the article! I think everyone at one point or another have wanted to avoid talking to people about their problems. It makes sense-we don’t know what the right things to say are when it comes to more “sensitive” issues. and there’s nothing wrong with namking some new year resolutions! haha

  2. Thank you for sharing this heart braking story with us. You’ve just tought me things I knew but somehow needed to read so they can actually materialize in my heart and mind. It is so hard to remain honest and pretending not to be affected though. Compassion is in all of us, and as mothers, our natural instinct is to protect and care for other… I will keep your post in mind next time death approaches me one way or the other.
    Thank you Nanxi.

  3. This was so well written. One of my best friends lost her husband over the course of last year. He was 51 and died of a very rare form of brain cancer. Because my friend runs a busy home-based business (she teaches herding dogs how to herd sheep and goats) she had her hands full. A bunch of her students came up with ways we could direct people’s offers “to help” because we saw a lot of people saying they’d be glad to do something, but then waited to be told (by her) what. She simply wasn’t in the right frame of mind to manage a bunch of volunteers.

    Dying has a learning curve, especially those deaths that take time to run their natural course. People aren’t born knowing ‘how to die’ and friends don’t always instinctively know what to do to support their process. I tried very hard NOT to say “Let me know if you need …..” because I understand from personal experience how hard it can be to ask friends or help when you need it. Oh, it’s easy to ask a friend for help once or twice, but what happens when your plight drags on and on with no real end in sight? And in defense of your friends, coming up with concrete ways to actually step into someone’s daily life and be helpful isn’t always an easy matter either. People don’t want to intrude or do the wrong thing. Even something as simple as making a meal for the family can become quite complex when there are elaborate dietary issues do to infirmity, age, or certain medications.

    One of the best things I unknowingly did was the most simple gesture: I insisted my friend join me on a horseback ride. She hadn’t ridden a horse in 30+ years, but had ridden extensively as a child and teen. She was at the point where it was difficult for her to get off her farm to do anything for her own mental health, but we made arrangements to have someone be with her husband for a few hours so she could take a break. She literally cried as we rode down the trail. It was the first time she’d thought about anything besides what she needed to do for her husband or two boys. I eventually “forced” her to come ride with me several times over her husband’s illness. Sometimes she’d come up with excuses why she couldn’t and I’d say, “I’m saddling your horse and I’ll be ready to go in 40 minutes. Be here.” She always showed up.

    Her husband died in the spring. A few months after his passing I called my friend up again and told her that her horse was ready and waiting. Our long ambling rides gave her a unique opportunity to confront her grief and learn to laugh again. She’s currently in the process of looking for a horse of her own. 🙂

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