You likely know someone whose world has been turned upside down by a life-altering diagnosis such as cancer. If you don’t, unfortunately, you will. You want to be able to help someone in crisis, but, how?. When my husband was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, we experienced the good the bad and the ugly when it came to the way people gave us support. Some people with good intentions ultimately caused us a lot of pain. We also had friends and family that who did things that made an amazing difference.
How do you help someone in crisis?
Since you’re reading this, I am sure that you want to be a blessing to the people in your life who are going through the fire of cancer or some other life-altering diagnosis. You have unique strengths and gifts that can benefit them at the point of their greatest need. I want to help you know how to use these strengths and gifts to their maximum potential.
Helping someone in crisis doesn’t have to feel like a burden. In fact, it should bless you as much as your friend. Here are some ideas for making the experience of supporting a friend a good one for you, your friend, and their family.
Prepare Yourself, Emotionally
It can be difficult to see someone in crisis, especially when it’s someone you care about. Reacting in the moment can result in saying something unintentionally insensitive, Avoid this by processing your own feelings beforehand. It can be difficult to hear that a friend is facing cancer or some other crisis. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about their diagnosis before you see him or her. This way, you can keep the focus on your friend.
This isn’t an excuse to avoid someone in crisis. All too often, people steer clear of friends who have a life-threatening illness like cancer or a life-changing crisis like divorce or financial ruin. It is so painful to go through a crisis and discover half of your friends have disappeared. Often people who avoid friends in crisis don’t even realize that’s what they are doing. They may think they are waiting for a better time to see their friend. Unfortunately, lots of people do this. The result for someone in crisis is a feeling of abandonment.
You might think your friend has a lot of people around to support him/her and that you would only be in the way. I’ve talked to many patients and caregivers who found that their circle of friends suddenly shrank with their diagnosis, often because people made this assumption. So, how do you prepare?
Learn about the diagnosis
Your friend may not want to talk about the details. It can be physically and emotionally tiring to repeat the same information to different people. If possible, ask the person’s spouse or a mutual friend may be able to give you the basics. This way you will have the correct information. If there’s information that is unknown or not shared, don’t push for more. You aren’t getting a medical degree, just a general idea of what your friend is dealing with.
Be prepared for changes in your friend’s appearance
Weight changes, hair loss, fatigue, symptoms such as a cough or shortness of breath are common side effects of cancer and many treatments. The opposite can also be true. Newer treatments have fewer appearance altering side effects. But, this doesn’t diminish the seriousness of what the patient is going through. Often, a person’s appearance doesn’t match up with what’s happening inside of their body and how they are feeling. So, instead of commenting on any physical changes, start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you.”
Follow the Golden Rule
It can really help when deciding how to treat a friend who has cancer, or the primary caregiver for a cancer patient. How would you want to be treated if you were in their shoes? Better yet, how does your friend want to be treated? Not everyone wants the same thing. Some people need time to process on their own. Others want to surrounded by supportive friends. How does your friend typically react to difficult trials? Do they withdraw? Do they want to talk? If you aren’t sure of what they want, just ask. Ask even if you think you know what they want. They might surprise you.
Ideas for helping someone in crisis
These ideas will work for people affected by any life-altering diagnosis. These ideas came out of our family’s experience, and the experiences of others fighting similar battles. I share these ideas and more in my book. Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com. Although each person with cancer is different, we have heard a harmonizing chorus of feelings expressed by people with a life-altering diagnosis.
Check-in with a phone call
Before visiting, giving advice, and asking questions, ask if it is welcome. Make it clear that saying no is perfectly fine.
When possible, let your friend know when you will be calling. Write it on your calendar so you don’t forget. Also, let him/her know that it’s okay not to answer the phone.
Don’t be afraid to make plans for the future. This gives your friend something to look forward to. When making plans, be flexible in case something comes up or your friend needs to cancel or reschedule.
Don’t let your friend’s illness get in the way of your friendship. Continue to ask them about their interests, hobbies, life events and other topics not related to cancer. People going through treatment sometimes need a break from talking about the disease. Be cheerful when you naturally would be, and humorous and fun when appropriate. A light conversation or funny story can make a friend’s day. This doesn’t mean ignoring the elephant in the room. Allow for sadness. Don’t ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings. Your friend may need to talk to someone he/she trusts.
Offer specific help
Often, when talking to someone in crisis, you ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” 9 times out of 10 they will say no. This is because they’re so overwhelmed that they have no idea what they need. It’s better to instead anticipate his/her needs and offering to help with specific tasks, such as taking care of children, pets, or preparing a meal. If your friend declines an offer of help, don’t take it personally. It can be hard for many people to learn to accept help. Let them know you’re “on call” for emergencies, and offer again in the future. Keep your promises. If you commit to helping, it’s important that you follow through. They are counting on you.
Read his or her blog, web page, or group emails
It is often difficult for someone in crisis to be so open about such personal information, especially in such a public forum such as the internet. Yet, this is how someone in crisis can share their experience with friends and family. By following their story, you are showing you care about your friend. Stay current with these updates to avoid blunders when you talk to them. Also, this means that your friend won’t have to repeat experiences or information multiple times. These updates can also be a great way to start a conversation.
What are YOUR thoughts?
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker