The discovery of an illness in a friend, colleague or loved one often comes as a surprise.
One can only imagine what it is like for the affected individual experiencing an often life changing diagnosis.
What is often our initial response to the following words?
“I have been diagnosed with cancer”
“I am not well”
“I have been told I will not survive this”
Our natural response as human beings might be to cry, scream, be at a loss for words, or even fail to believe or accept the news we have received.
Unfortunately, we often react badly, adding insult to injury.
Imagine receiving unexpected news about a diagnosis of serious illness, news you never thought you would ever hear. Imagine the over-whelming feelings of powerlessness and fear.
Consumed by waves of confusion, needing to process things, desperately hoping someone will wake you up from what surely must be a nightmare, you seek solace from a loved one or friend.
Only to have well-meaning individuals come to you and tell you that you will “get over it”. Or even worse, declare with great authority that this is something that you have brought on yourself?
As honourable as our intentions might be, words spoken amiss can wound deeply and devastatingly. Few have mastered one of the greatest disciplines of life and living which is to be quick to listen, slow to speak- and on occasion, simply say nothing.
There are times when our simple presence means so much more than eager words spoken in haste.
If we are not inflicting wounds with our words, our actions are ever ready to add fuel to the flames. Friends and relatives can be quick to take on roles which are not required such as adopting the role of a parent and decision maker leaving the adult who is going through ill health feeling like an invalid who can no longer make decisions.
What can be even more exasperating for the individual faced with a serious illness is when relatives or friends misinterpret empathy to mean that they see themselves as actual victims of this tragedy, somehow feeling that they are going through the greater loss.
Another extreme of behaviour is to completely avoid the person going through the life change because we do not know what to say or how to behave. This can often leave those individuals isolated and wondering why they are being treated like a leper.
How then can we be a blessing and not a burden?
Firstly, your presence does not have to be marked with words. Sometimes simply being there to listen, cry together or hold one’s hand can make a world of difference.
Secondly, do not ask too many questions. Often it takes a while for one to obtain all the necessary information concerning a diagnosis and being bombarded with questions does not help.
At such times it is imperative that you do not become part of the noise that could currently exist.
Thirdly, if you must speak, some of the most helpful things to say come as questions,
“What would you like me to do?”
“Is there anything you need?”
These are better questions to ask compared to asking someone how this happened or what they intend to do.
I often find that the best questions are those that lead to the affected individual opening up and offering more information about how they actually feel and their circumstances.
What about a prayer? Or words of comfort or hope? These are priceless.
Fourthly, when someone facing a serious illness decides to open up and share their heart, your opinion is not necessary right away.
Take your time: listen, listen, listen.
This will enable you assess their state of mind as well as what they are truly feeling.
You will get a glimpse of where they are at and what they are thinking.
Be careful not to judge them at this point, simply take it in and over-time time, think about what it is you need to say.
If you get the go ahead at a later date to share your thoughts, you can now do so bearing in mind that you are speaking as an outsider as opposed to the one going through the change.
Lastly, we should always remember that we are dealing with real people who have their own minds and ideas about life.
Not every illness impairs ones thinking so it is imperative that we allow our friends and loved ones to continue making their own choices as long as they have not lost their cognitive abilities. Even if we might not agree with them.
We should enable them carry on their day to day activities as opposed to making them feel like invalids with no voice.
In the same vein it is always important to give them space.
Space to process events without interruption, space to cry and scream, space to be as they were before their diagnosis and space to become whoever they become by the end of this new journey.
When they are ready, encourage them to seek counselling in a place where they will feel safe to speak without judgement and shame.
As much as is possible, deal with your own feelings and responses in their absence. Find a shoulder to cry on or someone to vent to.
Afterwards, stand up straight, put on your lipstick if you wear it, and pick up your shield of faith.
You are a soldier and there is a battle to be fought.
If you or someone you love is experiencing grief and needs to talk, get in touch.