Sunday, June 08, 2008

What helps, and what doesn't

I just came in from church. I went by myself; my friend went to her own, and I chose to go elsewhere in town. I like the community, and the priest; a woman.

I sat near the back. A friend of my friend came and hugged me. Another sat with me. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. She asked how I was, already knowing the basic story. We caught up, and I kept catching her smiling at me. The connection was warm, friendly, comfortable.

The priest knew me right away, which surprised me because we’d only met once, at the end of March. I don’t know a lot of people, but the community seems welcoming and warm. I may not be up for commutes (of ten miles, or eighty); this feels like a good place to encamp for the summer.

I snuck out during coffee hour, though. Here’s why:

I sat with my friend’s friend, W. She introduced me to C, sitting across from her. W mentioned someone else she knew who had cancer. We talked about that, and about how I was doing. I’m used to telling the story; I was fine.

C picked up on the cancer theme, but didn’t realize that W and I had been talking about me. She started in about how rates for this and that and the other kind of cancer were rising. She mentioned skin. My breath shortened, and my throat started to close. I said, “I can’t deal with this conversation anymore.”

W told C that I was dealing with cancer also. C got it, and apologized. All was well.

Then both of them told me how to deal with it! C said something about a positive attitude. W said that as a Christian, she would give it over to God.

I know she meant well. She gave me what wisdom she had. Thing was, I wasn’t asking for it. I really just wanted to talk about anything else.

I got up, saying I needed tea. They only had black tea, which I don't like (next time, I'll bring my own). But once freed from the conversation, I didn't want to go back to it. I snuck out the side door, instead.

I miss my community so much I can taste it. My teachers, and the friends whose company I sought, became ministers of presence. Some of my friends were just as baffled as I; they hadn’t had a friend go through this before. But they did the right thing: they listened, and they offered prayer. Those who had survived health crises of their own, helped me process. They helped me figure out what I needed and what I didn’t; and how to ask for the words that would help me. My teachers told me only to take care of myself: sleep when I needed to; take walks; breathe; focus on God’s love. They told me they understood my fear, and my edginess—they never told me what to do with them. (When I asked for coping tips, I was given them. Not before.)

I know that I was the resident pastoral-care lab rat, and that denizens of a seminary are a special breed. I’m not going to find that level of awareness everywhere I look, just because I’m accustomed to it. But maybe I can increase it, here.

If you have friends who are going through harrowing times, ask them what they need and want. One size doesn’t fit all. But here’s how to help me:

If you have time for a real answer, it’s okay to ask how I am. If not, skip the question. Tell me you love me; tell me you’re praying for me. Do NOT give me unsolicited advice.

Why not? First, because it irritates me, and stresses me all over again. “Give this fear to God.” Right, like that’s easy. And I’m not going to do the work to get there, if I don’t think it’s mine. I need to experience this; be transformed by it, learn from it. I still can barely pray for myself; my community bears God for me. I can’t conceive of trusting an entity separate from that love. And this fear keeps me processing; keeps me working, keeps me learning. Right now, it isn’t something I completely want to lose.

When you tell me to give my anxiety to God, you’re skipping to the back of a book I’m in the middle of. I need to do the work that’s in front of me. That kind of trust, if it comes, will come later.

[I know that I blog about cancer all the time. In real life, I think about it, but it’s not an unhealthy obsession. I sleep through the night now, and I’m calmer than I’ve been.]

Also: If you haven’t walked this road yourself, your words are hollow. You have no authority in this neighborhood, if you haven’t lived here. If you’ve been here, I want to hear you. If you haven’t, don’t try to talk. Just listen.

How to support me, in a nutshell:

• If you’re worried about me, tell me. Otherwise, accept me where I am.
• Tell me you love me; tell me you’re praying for me. Most other words are useless.
• Don’t minimize my need to protect myself from the sun. I’m not being paranoid if I wear a hat. I’m taking care of myself. My doctors have told me to do this.
• If you’re thinking of me, tell me. You don’t have to say anything more than, “Hi.”
• Don’t talk to me about your other friend with cancer. You may need a pastoral presence. Around this issue, I can’t be that, yet. Give me a year, or two, or five.

Thank you.


Paul said...

Wise words.

Mary Beth said...

thank you for this brave post.

I will not likely be running into you in person any time soon (though who knows) but your words are helpful to someone who cares deeply about friends, and does not have pastoral care training.


Lauralew said...

Hugs to you. Presence is what you need, not a boss. Why is it that we want to control in others what is uncontrollable? Why is my way of dealing with stuff the only or best way for all? Grr. Like Mary Beth said above, what you have said is so helpful.

"Give it to God." You HAVEN'T? Again, hugs and blessings to you.

Jane R said...

Right. We should take our cues from the person who is ill.

People do mean well. They just don't know or don't understand. (It's like folks who pat the tummy of pregnant women, or who say what seems consoling to them to a bereaved person.)

Peace to you.

susan s. said...


Kirstin said...


Thank you, everyone.