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Helping a loved one with serious illness?

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Serious illness, along with the physical challenges, can bring out some very strange dynamics in relationships with friends and family. Some people disappear, others hover and become intrusive to meet their own needs to help, while still others worry incessantly about what the “right” thing to do might be.

I’ve always advocated for specificity – from both the helpers and the ill person. Rather than saying, “Let me know what I can do to help,” it’s more effective for friends to offer something concrete: “Do you need groceries? Can I walk the dogs for you?” Or, look the ill person in the eyes and ask, “What do you need right now?”

The same goes for the person who is ill. The more specific she can be with support people, the better for everyone involved. Which leads me to this great example from my friend, Cathy.

Cathy is a recently retired UC Davis professor. An active participant in dog agility sports, Cathy began to feel run-down and achy several months ago. After a myriad of tests and lots of false starts on a diagnosis, the true picture was finally revealed: metastatic non-smoker’s lung cancer. The cancer had spread to her bones – the cause of the aching – and several organs.

After overcoming her initial shock, Cathy has taken up her journey with cancer in a quite remarkable way. More of her story will be told in later posts on this blog. For now, though, I want to share an email she wrote to her friends and family. She demonstrates a perfect way to tell those who love her exactly what she needs. (I have put some of the important points in bold font.)

People have been sharing a number of thoughts with me (thank you!) so I wanted to talk about those things a little in this announcement. One common comment that I get is that each person wants to help, but the rides are taken really quickly, so I’m imagining that people feel like they can’t do much. At the same time, several people have asked whether I want to deal with emails from them. Actually, those two topics dovetail nicely, because staying in touch with me on how you are doing is the best way people can help me now.

The fact is that I don’t need much physical assistance. That’s a good thing, like really good. I’m feeling so much better because of treatment–and I’m tolerating treatment so well, that I am virtually self-sufficient. After this last treatment, my cancer pain is almost completely gone. The last lingering place, the pain from the met in my right shoulder, is fading away, and the rest of the pain that I had been having since March is completely gone. The pain I am treating now is from the chemo, probably the Taxol, which causes joint pain. And as my oncologist tells me, that is all wonderful news. The treatment is working. So, perhaps you can see it from my point of view. Being self-sufficient and living independently as I always have done is an incredibly important part of my healing process. I’d feel so much worse, in other words, if I needed much more of your help with rides, errands, and other chores.

Meanwhile, I love getting emails from people. You might not think that is much help, but it really IS help to hear from you. It helps me tremendously to know that people have me in their thoughts. And I love hearing about what you are doing, what is keeping you busy these days, because I’m still sticking close to home until my chemo is done (mid September). I’m pretty bored with talking about me and how I’m doing :-), although you know you are all welcome to ask any questions that you have. I miss hearing about your dogs, your agility trials, or if you’re on campus, how your research, fieldwork, teaching and so on is coming, or your vacation, etc. Many of you have been sending me those newsy emails, and I want to let you know that you can’t send too many of those. And it’s real help, every bit as much as driving me somewhere or helping me with chores.

So keep those emails coming and know that it’s a great help to me. For the local folks, we can also find times to get together but if you’re busy, know that email works really well for me. Once again, keeping me in your thoughts is incredibly important to my healing. Thank you for all of the help that you have already provided and will in the future.

Can you hear all of Cathy’s supporters breathing a collective sigh of relief? Now they know what to do! My partner, Andrea, exemplified many people’s experience when she wrote back to Cathy and said, “I’m so glad to hear you want e-mails from us! I have been afraid to bug you.”

The key here for both sides – ill person and supporters – is to determine what is needed. This, as Cathy says, is an incredibly important part of the healing process.

Takeaway points: Specificity rules! Hopefully, the person who is sick will be able to say what she needs and what is most helpful in her healing. If it’s a struggle for her, take the lead if you are a friend or family member: ask her what she needs and guide her toward understanding what is most effective in her healing.

What are your thoughts about helping or asking for help?

If you are ill, or a caregiver for someone who is, let’s talk about how you can survive – and even thrive – on this journey. Call me at 650-529-9059 or email me for an appointment.


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.