Years ago, I had a friend who was going through a very difficult time. I loved my friend, and I truly cared, and I reached out to her as best I could, but I didn’t really understand the journey she was on so sometimes my encouragement was clumsy and likely not helpful. A few years later, I went through the same sort of suffering. We cried together in understanding. Then she said something very powerful to me:
“I always knew you cared, but now I know that you understand.”
I have found that it’s not easy helping those who are suffering. They are in a place I am not in. They are dealing with issues of life and death while I’m trying to decide what to have for dinner. I have often felt like a bystander whose clumsy words and fumbling help is just…inadequate…for the things they are dealing with.
Silly me, I used to think that a sinus infection was merely a long-lasting cold. I didn’t understand how seriously debilitating they were until I suffered several years of chronic sinus infections, and eventually needed surgery. I always cared, but now I have great compassion for people who suffer from sinus infections. I cared, but I didn’t understand the heartbreak of a miscarriage, the deep down fatigue of chronic illness, the deep wounds of rejection, or the horribleness of fighting cancer until I suffered them. How could I? I had never traveled that path before.
This post is really for me. As I begin this newest journey, I am starting to observe and take notes so, on the other side of this, I can remind myself of what is helpful or not helpful to others traveling behind me. I want to be there for them, as best I can. It’s easy to forget what is helpful when the pain is gone so I want to jot down what is helpful now, when I’m going through it.
Notes to Myself:
I am finding that any sort of loving touch–whether from friend or stranger–is a priceless treasure, a beam of light in the dark, a lifeline. It doesn’t matter whether the words are eloquent or not, many or few. It doesn’t matter if the message of love comes through a comment on FB or a blog, a card in the mail, a package of goodies, a visit, sharing a favorite movie, or any of a million other ways a person expresses love. They all say, “I am here. You are not alone. I love you.” So speak. Reach out. Share your advice and stories of hope.
I am finding it helpful when a person lets me feel what I feel. I KNOW God is with us through this journey, and we actually have a lot of strong hope. Even so, it’s a difficult road and there is a roller coaster of emotions. For goodness sakes, don’t assume we have lost our faith or hope because we cry. Our tears do not mean that our faith is shaken. My family, all three of us, are facing this honestly–laughing, talking, crying. Our tears are as necessary as our laughter. We are not only modeling strength and courage to our son, but also realness, humor in the face of difficulties, how to confront fear, and many other things. Please don’t tell us we are not supposed to feel what we feel. I feel so relieved and strengthened when I am fighting to hold back tears and a friend says, “I know this is hard. It’s ok to cry. I am weeping with you.”
Also, realize that even when facing the same trials, everyone deals with it differently. Each journey is unique. Don’t expect our journey through this to look like yours. Don’t criticize a person if he does it differently. He is not you and you are not him. Listen to what the suffering one says he needs. He needs a hug? Give it. He needs someone to hear his fears? Listen.
My friend yesterday heard my need and practically put me in touch with someone who works at a cancer center so I could ask my questions. That was a huge help. One piece of helpful advice the cancer center lady gave me is that I need to be a Mama Bear and fight for my son. I told my friend that I was concerned that I can’t be a ferocious Mama Bear because confrontations are difficult for me. I can dig in my heals and stand firm if I KNOW what I am doing is right, but not if I am uncertain–and I am uncertain about what treatment is best for JJ. I told my friend that I need prayer about that. From that point on, she has sent me Mama Bear growls and pictures and reminders. Silly, but it makes me laugh and reminds me that I CAN BE A MAMA BEAR. She heard me.
Years ago, I considered being a Hospice volunteer and I attended a training session. I ended up not participating in this awesome ministry, but I did hear a very important thing: There is a difference between honesty and truth. At first I thought that was crazy because aren’t truth and honesty the same thing? However, as I pondered it, I realized that there was a lot of truth to it. The teacher of the class said that people who are ill (or their caregivers) are under tremendous stress and have ups and downs, good days and bad. Sometimes they will say honestly say something on a bad day that is not the truth of what they really believe. For example, they might say, “I don’t want you here. Don’t come back,” but they honestly feel that only that ONE moment or day and they really don’t feel that way ALL the time. They want you to be there. So, the hospice teacher said, don’t get offended if someone expresses hopelessness or anger one day. Keep coming back. Be there.
I’m trying to get through this the best I can. If on a stressful day I accidentally say something in the wrong way, please don’t get offended. I might feel that at that moment, but it’s not what I truly feel. I love you and NEED you. I want you HERE.
Keep sharing your advice, especially if you have gone this way before. We are considering your advice. We are getting hit with a lot of different information about many different things. It’s all overwhelming and we have a lot to figure out. We are finding much of your advice very, very helpful. Some of it we are saving to use when necessary. However, not all will apply to our situation. Please be supportive of us even if the decisions we make isn’t what you recommended. (It’s about the one suffering, not about you or me, and they need you to help them.) We love you, we are thankful for your help and advice, but we still have to figure out what is best for our son.
I find myself both more sensitive and less sensitive to what is going on around me. Individual stories of suffering are intensely sharper as I am more able to imagine the turmoil, fear, pain, and sadness they are going through. I’ve always cared but now, once again, I understand more deeply.
At the same time, the political debates and theological discussions have less relevancy. I’ve always been interested in them, and I certainly have always valued questioning and discussions. However, they are meaningless background noise right now. Well, sort of. They are both more important and less relevant. I mean, what do I care about politics when my son is fighting for his life? Except…I’m worried about Obamacare because it touches MY FAMILY. Whether others around me think it’s a disaster or a deliverance doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters is that it’s going to change healthcare, and I don’t know how. I’ve heard horror stories, and I wonder how it will affect our son’s treatment and our ability to pay for it. I also don’t care about theological debates right now. Go ahead and debate whether people aren’t healed because they lack faith, but I won’t get involved. It’s personal to me, not an academic theological debate. Personally, I believe that it takes great faith to believe God can heal and great faith to endure, and my ability to trust God as much with non-healing as with healing is being put to the test. What I am saying is, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Please remove this cup from me. However, not what I desire, but what you desire.”
The one thing I would say not to ever, ever do is to tell a suffering person that the reason he or his loved one is not healed is because he doesn’t have enough faith. It’s cruel. You don’t really know what that person is faithfully enduring or what God is doing in his life through the suffering. God works in different ways in different people and at different times. Don’t make a person’s suffering harder.
I understand that you also have things going on in your life, and you are fighting your own battles. I can understand if you can’t be here all the time. Life is hard for us all. I also understand that you, like me, might not know how to help or what to say, and your words might be clumsy. Don’t worry. Even if you accidentally say the “wrong” thing, I am not offended. I see and hear your wonderful love. You are very precious to me. I am finding all of you to be absolutely awesome as my family begins this battle with cancer. I have never before experienced such love and support. JJ is very touched by your concern. I keep telling him about all these messages and prayers he is receiving from all around the world. He says, “Wow. Why are they doing this? Why are they so interested in me? I’m no one special.” “It’s really amazing how many people care, isn’t it? I can only say that I really think it’s God.”
These are the things I want to remember when people around me are suffering.