I wrote yesterday about things that people said to me during my cancer journey and in the time since (though one could argue that it’s all the same journey).
I wanted to talk about it a little more.
I don’t think people are intentionally being mean or dismissive or any other unpleasant thing.
I think people are trying to protect themselves, to give order to events where there is none, to relieve themselves of guilt for it not happening to them, to relieve themselves of the discomfort of “what the hell do you say to someone who was just diagnosed with cancer?”
(I can help answer that last one. Will get to that but not going on that tangent yet. Also, all of this applies to all sorts of sudden life unpleasantries, not just a cancer diagnosis.)
Our brains’ mission in life is to keep everything predictable which makes us comfortable. This is why people who are miserable with their lives don’t change—they’re comfortable in their misery. Change is scary, and what if it’s worse on the other side? The demon you know versus the one you don’t kind of situation.
So when we’re handed something that immediately provokes change, we don’t like it. So we resist (consciously or not). And offer platitudes to the person/people who are at ground zero so we can feel better about ourselves and our position in life and shrug off how close it came to being us.
Is there a growing number of people who “need” cancer to learn a lesson, or to grow, or to change? No, I don’t think so.
Are there plenty of people who go through it and come out the other side without having learned any positive lessons, without having grown, without having changed for the better? Yes, there are.
And of course, there are plenty of people who don’t come out the other side.
It’s nearly guaranteed that you’re going to be at the center of a horrible little universe one day. Whether a medical diagnosis, the death of someone close, financial ruin, something, someday is going to knock your legs out from under you and kick you while you’re down.
While I don’t advocate for worrying about it, I also don’t advocate for blowing off other people’s pain to help you ignore the possibility of it showing up at your door.
For another day, you’re not at ground zero. It’s not you.
Is it awkward and uncomfortable to be with someone in that space? Yes. Yes, it is.
Do it anyway.
Your people need you. Step up. Be brave—just by showing up.
You can’t fix the problem.
You can’t fix the problem.
You’re not going to say something that magically makes them feel better about their situation. But you can make them feel better for this moment. Be present. Be real.
What do you say? I’m sorry. That sucks. When do you want/need company? What meal can I bring you or your family? (Or, if you already know what would be welcome, What day can I bring you xyz?) When do you need me to watch your kids? Give me your grocery list and let me take care of it for you. Let me come over and vacuum (or dust or clean bathrooms or do laundry) so you don’t have to worry about it. I know it feels weird to get help with things you’re used to doing, but please let me help you so you can take care of you. I can’t kill tumors but I can wash socks and watch kids.
Depending on the person, maybe they’d just like to have conversations about other things. Maybe living with this and talking about it as much as is necessary is enough, and they’d like a bit of time back in normal life. Maybe they’d like to play a game. Cards, or a board game for few players.
Find something to help them pass time when they’re alone. Puzzles, magazines, a subscription (Netflix or similar) if they don’t already have one (even I would have watched TV through chemo). Books if they can read (I love reading but couldn’t get through a paragraph of a book because: chemo brain). A journal and a nice pen. Tools for a skill maybe they’ve been wanting to learn: knitting, crocheting, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, etc.
And then—a few months later, when most people have fallen off (because life events are longer than attention spans)—check in again (if you haven’t been all along). Same offers. New offer. Whatever. And then again.