When Someone You Know is Seriously Ill
Posted on 09/17/2014
WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS SERIOUSLY ILL
Bill was a good friend. We were college buddies and spent of lot of time together. He was a little goofy and pretty quirky, but he grew on me (I wonder what he would say about me!). He ended up being a groomsman in my wedding, and over the years he always managed to be there when I needed someone I could trust.
Bill called me several times a year to catch up, so when his number popped up on my cell one rainy day in February, I smiled and prepared for another rousing good time.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
“Hey Gary,” he said. “I need you to pray for me. I’ve got leukemia. It’s advanced, and it doesn’t look good.”
I was stunned. It was like someone had punched me in the gut. When I finally found my tongue, all I could say was, “What?!”
We were in our early 40’s. How could this be?
There were no explanations. It simply was what it was.
Serious accidents and illnesses occur, and sometimes they happen to those we know and love. As with any loss, we find ourselves in a grief process we didn’t ask for.
When the first shock wave hits us, we’re dazed and it takes a while to get our bearings. Once we do, we get angry or even depressed that such a thing could happen. Perhaps we look back at the relationship with some regret, struggling with what-if and if-only. Their world has changed dramatically, and since we care for them, ours has too.
Deep down we want to help, but what can we really do?
More than we think. Here’s three things that can make a big difference.
First of all, we can show up.
“I need you in this with me, my friend,” Bill said. “I know you’re four states away, and I don’t want you to leave your family and come, but I’d love to hear your voice from time to time.”
Bill was requesting my presence in his battle with leukemia. He was asking me to show up and be with him.
Our presence is powerful – much more than we realize.
We may be tempted to keep our distance. Perhaps we’re afraid we’ll say something stupid, or wonder how we’ll react when we see them. Showing up can be scary. That’s okay. They know it’s hard, and when we show up anyway it reminds them they’re not alone. That’s a huge gift.
Our presence also helps unplug the fear and uncertainty they might be facing. We’re relational beings, and we cope better when we feel well connected to others. We can support with visits, calls, texts, or gifts – whatever is most consistent with our relationship with them.
Showing up is huge.
Second, we can shut up.
We don’t know what to say at times like these. Thankfully, we don’t need to say anything. We can simply be with them and let them set the agenda. They may want us to talk, but we don’t have to fear being quiet. It’s the power of our presence that matters. Being with them can bring a sense of peace, safety, and hope, even if it’s on the phone.
In my phone conversations with Bill, there were long periods of silence. It felt strange, but yet real. Once he even said, “Thanks for being quiet. I know you’re there. I don’t need words.”
Listening is a wonderful way to enter into another’s world. People who are hurting often need to talk and share their fears and worries. Some need to unload the excess baggage that weighs them down. They need safe, non-judgmental ears to hear their stories.
We can be those listening ears.
Third, we can serve.
Let’s ask them or a family member what we can do to help. There are always things that need to be done, from providing food to making phone calls to mowing lawns and letting the dog out. Caring for someone seriously ill is a team effort, and we can be an important part of the team.
I believe one of the most powerful ways we can serve is to pray (not surprising for a chaplain!). Studies show that people who are ill and are prayed for do better emotionally and heal faster.
I showed up in the ways I could for Bill. Yes, I could’ve done more. I wish I had. But I also knew he had a small army of people close by attending to his needs.
Bill fought valiantly. He used Facebook to communicate with the myriad of friends he had all over the world. He kept emphasizing that he knew we were in this with him, fighting alongside him, and that made all the difference.
Show up. Shut up. Serve.
If you’re a caregiver, you’re already doing this – all the time. Your challenge will be taking good care of you so you can take great care of your loved one. I’m frequently reminded of that standard announcement after boarding an aircraft:
“In case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the compartment above your seat…Parents, first put on your own mask, and then assist your children with theirs.”
The logic is simple – in the midst of an emergency, a passed out parent won’t do a child any good. But this is not our first instinct as parents (or caregivers). We first jump to take care of those who depend on us and consider our own welfare later. This might be appropriate in the short-term, but if the situation continues, we’ll need to adjust and make sure we’re getting what we need so that we can keep giving well.
Remember, everyone who’s seriously ill needs a team of people to care for them. The part you play is unique to you. Show up in the ways that you can, and keep showing up. You can make a tremendous difference.