Strangely enough I started this blog about a week ago, and circumstances have made it suddenly relevant in an unexpected way.
I wanted to write about how to help a person who has been given a cancer diagnosis. And how to help the caregiver, and the family. I know so many people have told me that when Elliot was first diagnosed they felt helpless, not knowing what to do, what to say, how to help.
This blog was going to answer all those questions. I really had thought it over and had realized that of all the things that people did to support us through this, there was really only one thing that was absolutely the “best thing”: just be there. Call, write, email, text, share your thoughts, ask anything, say anything. Just be there.
There really was no right or wrong, our feelings were such a roller coaster of snapping emotions that you could have given us a winning lottery ticket and we might have broken into sobbing tears and replied “How can you think of such a thing at this time?” And on the flip side we also could have laughed hysterically if you dropped an anvil on your foot in front of us. The gut reaction is really a strange thing.
So my main advice, for those who ask how to help, is just to show up. Don’t worry so much about what to say, what to do.
Just show up.
I started to write my blog.
It usually takes me a few days to write a blog, because I am often interrupted by kids, teenagers and young adults. (One of each, to be precise).
So I had worked on the blog for a few days, and hadn’t finished. Then one early morning a couple days ago, I was getting ready to leave for work, feeling pretty good about life in general, you know, one of those moments when you feel like things happen for a reason, everything has it’s time and place and all that philosophical blah blah blah… In fact that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother blog post. (Elliot interrupted just then to ask if he could eat just two ‘nother strawberries. You see how I get nothing done?)
In fact the whole concept of “it was meant to be” bothers me… Recently I saw on facebook a post which I not only liked but shared, that said something like “One day, it will all make sense, so for now, just smile through your tears, and remember that everything happens for a reason.. “
A friend of mine shared it on her wall, and a friend of hers, who lost her child to cancer a few years ago, commented simply “I certainly hope this is not true, because then it would be even harder for me to accept.”
Huh. Hadn’t thought if it that way.
Hmmm, so which one is it? Should you accept that things happen for a reason, and just sit back and enjoy the ride (the terrifying gut-wrenching, emotionally draining, hysterically funny, boring slow yet fast roller coaster ride) and wait for it all to make sense?
I really don’t know. Maybe some readers out there will have an idea.
In any case, I’ve gone off topic (it was the break for the extra 2 strawberries that did it, I lost my train of thought. I told Elliot that if he keeps interrupting me I will lose my train of thought. He replied, concerned: “Where IS my brio train set anyway?”)
My point was that at least that particular morning, I thought I had solved the “how to help” dilemma, and was feeling pretty good about my day so far (which had so far lasted only about 45 minutes since I had just gotten up and rushed about madly getting ready for work.).
But on my way down the elevator I made a strategic mistake. First, I started looking through my emails on my phone. One email struck me, a new blog post from a fellow blogger. I knew something was wrong from the title, and tried to open it while in the elevator, which only made my phone freeze and my keys fall on the floor (because when your phone is frozen you need both hand to tap the screen ferociously).
When I bent to pick up my keys, my open purse spilled its contents onto the floor. The elevator doors then opened and my well-dressed neighbour who teaches at the nearby school-for-really-really-rich kids was standing there, looking very normal and sophisticated in her grey pant suit, hair perfectly unmoving, nails manicured. My nails have not been manicured since that time I went during a girls’ day out, and found out that a manicure is actually a mini-form of torture that involves tweezing little pieces of skin off you while you smile and sip champagne with your friends and everyone pretends this is normal.
But I digress (I know.)
I got my stuff together, and while walking quickly to my car, started reading the email. It was 6 am and cold, once of those wet windy mornings, and I was underdressed because it’s June dammit, but instead of getting into the car I stood beside it reading, getting colder and damper.
It was an online friend of the blogger world, who was writing that she may have relapsed.
And suddenly, there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could say. All my great advice was out the window.
Because the thing is, when you’re on the sidelines, just a frightened participant to another person’s cancer roller coaster, all you want to do is stop the ride. Get them off. Fix the problem.
But you can’t fix the problem.
And yet my idea of “just showing up” feels like not enough…
So I can understand the people who drop out of sight when someone is diagnosed with cancer. There really is nothing you can do, and the helplessness is quite maddening. And the sadness you feel being around someone who just got bad news is horrible, it really is easier to avoid the whole thing and say: “let them have their space”. Still, your feelings of frustration, anger and sadness are nothing compared to what the other person is going through.
Another online friend of mine is back home now with his young son who has relapsed from his cancer. Home because all treatments have failed. The family is now spending their last time together. The dad writes a blog, and I read the updates with a heavy heart. It hurts. And this is only a fraction of the hurt this dad is feeling as he puts his life into words on a page. I sometimes think I shouldn’t read it, because it is pretty upsetting. But this dad has been there for me when I needed help. So I will read, because it’s all I can do. I can put up with my minute fraction of pain compared to what he is going through, so that he knows someone is listening. It won’t be easy but hey, I’ll take the advice I give my teenagers so often: “suck it up” (usually not in relation to cancer but to way more serious life tragedies like having to get up before noon even though it’s vacation.)
So I amend my advice.
How to help? First, suck it up. Then, show up.
At least that's what I'm thinking of doing for now.
My grandmother, my mother, my son. Somehow, the cancer dragon skipped over me. Life is a roller coaster adventure, one with ups and downs, twists and turns. Our family is holding on tight for the ride, and somehow, happy. Together we are stronger than cancer.I write more about my cancer experiences at nicolescobie.com et en français au http://mamancancer.wordpress.com/