Taking care of each other: Helping ill friends and relatives
Life is unfair.
My good friend retired from his job in his early 60’s. He was looking forward to reading all the books he missed in his workaday life. Several months after his retirement party, he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Joe is a realist. He decided not to undergo chemotherapy, recognizing that his quality of life would decline more quickly, but the outcome would be the same. He is philosophical, but sad that he won’t get to see his children grow up. His children are in their early 20’s.
I visit Joe most weekends and spend a few hours with him sitting in his backyard, throwing wood onto a small fire in his fire pit. We watch the flames and smoke lick the sky. We talk about this and that. Sometimes he tells me about his past, his parents, their story, and about his current concerns. He’s a very private person. I don’t press.
A few months earlier he sent out an email to his friends letting them know how thankful he was for their friendship and that he planned to spend as much time with his kids as he could. It was a goodbye letter, but it also gave his network the sense that he wasn’t up for visitors. Which, it turns out, wasn’t the case.
Unexpected illness is one of many unwelcome visitors that come to the door. Fortunately, it happens more often when our friends and relatives are older--But not always. Younger people also have bodies that can fail. We are all in the same boat and it can get pretty leaky at times.
Sadly, many people feel intimidated by serious illness, like cancer. They don’t know what to say or what to do, so they don’t come around. They feel awkward and frightened. They don’t want to impose on their friend or relative.
In our culture, death is hidden. More often than not, adults die in hospitals, far away from their friends and family. Mortality is viewed as a silent enemy, hidden, but patiently stalking each one of us. Better not to talk about it, or maybe it will rear its ugly head. I was very fortunate. I got to be with both my parents at the end of their life. I had the opportunity to comfort them as they made life’s final transition.
Here are some important points to remember when a family or relative becomes seriously ill:
Don’t ask your ill friend or family member to let you know what help they need. Many adults are terrible at asking for help! They are the ones that are quick to offer to help others, but they don’t like to ask for help for themselves. More often than not, they won’t. Just provide assistance—use your imagination. Bring by food, music, magazines, books, movies and other items that may bring comfort. If the lawn needs to be mowed, just come by and mow it. I’ve been bringing over wood for my friend’s comfort fire. It also gives me a good excuse to stop by.
Visit. I send Joe an email, letting him know when I would like to come by. If he isn’t up for visitors, he lets me know. If it’s inconvenient, we find another time. I’m sensitive to his energy level. If he looks tired, I leave sooner. More frequent shorter visits may be preferable.
It’s okay to talk about what’s in the room. I know it’s very hard to talk about death. But terminally ill adults are often relieved to talk about their mortality, their situation, and what they are thinking and feeling. Frequently, they keep these thoughts to themselves to protect their family and friends. They will welcome the opportunity to talk with you openly.
Life is all about showing up. We all know that 90% of success at work (and most everything else) is about showing up. The same is true with friendship and family life. Don’t worry if you feel awkward, uncertain, or unsure.
Just show up.