Cancer patients and their caregivers often share with me things that people say that hurt their feelings. Recently a caregiver recalled an incident where a friend saw her and asked how she was doing? The caregiver assumed her friend really wanted to know how she was doing so she began to tell her about the struggles she and her husband who had cancer were doing. As she began to share some of her pain and struggle she saw her friend look away and spot someone she knew in the crowd. Her friend waved to this person and then excused herself and went to talk to the person she had waved to.
As the caregiver recounted this experience it was clear that the hurt was still deep. She thought her friend cared about her. She thought her friend wanted to support her. But now she had come to the conclusion that her friend really didn’t want to share her pain and struggle. It made this caregiver feel alone. It made her think that ultimately you can’t really count on anyone to be there when you need them.
I think everyone of us is uncomfortable in the presence of grief and major illness. We are never sure just what to say or what to do. We know we should do something. We know we should show concern. We know we should say something that shows we care and understand. But when we actually ask our friend how they are doing and the intensity of their struggles starts to hit us we may find ourselves feeling that we are in over our heads. That may be when we say something unhelpful like, “Oh, you will be OK. There is nothing to worry about.” That may be when we look for somewhere else to go and bail out. That may be where we look at our watch and say,”Oh my goodness I didn’t realize what time it is. I’ve got to go.”
If you really want to support someone who is having a hard time know up front what you are attempting to do. Know that this isn’t going to be easy. Be prepared to be touched by their pain. Don’t think you have to have an answer for their struggle. Do understand the power of listening carefully and responding with empathy. Do stay until the person thanks you for asking them how they are doing. Do let that person know you are standing with them no matter how tough it gets. If you have these things in mind you will find it possible to approach your friend and ask them, “How are you doing?” If you aren’t prepared please don’t ask, “How are you doing?”