My name is Beth. I am a 58-year-old wife, mother of three and proud grandmother to four of the cutest kids around. For many years, I used to be an active member in my synagogue. Professionally, for over 15 years I was a resource room teacher in our local public school. Unfortunately, my illness has forced me to take an early retirement from a job that brought so much meaning to my life. So much has transpired within me in the past year of my diagnosis on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels that it is difficult to describe the effects of all this change. I have learned a lot about life, living and people.
You: My friends, family and community members mean so very well when trying to be a support to me. I sincerely am so grateful and appreciative and am unsure how I would be managing without you all. But right now, I need to be direct. I want to share some things I hope you can take to heart and will remember from this day onward.
Be present in my emotion.
I often feel angry, hurt, frustrated and sad. I can feel vulnerable, lonely, confused, powerless and disappointed. I might express these feelings to you at various times. I apologize if these feelings make you feel uncomfortable or stir up some emotion in you. But, if and when I do express these emotions to you, please hear them. Please try to understand them. Expression of feelings is essential for growth, not an obstacle to growth.
I do not want to hear “Don’t feel…” You might not realize that by saying those words you are actually invalidating my feelings and making me feel worse. Please just listen to me and allow me to express my raw emotion.
The story is mine.
This is my illness. My story. My life. You might know of someone who has the “same” diagnosis as me. You yourself might even have been through similar. But I guarantee you that we experience things differently. When and if I open up to you, it is for you to be present and focus on me and my situation. Please do not “one up” me with a story that you have. Just give me the attention that I need right now for my specific situation. Focus on my story only.
It is very hard for me to be in a position to accept help right now. It was always me who was the one to help others, not the other way around. I feel so uncomfortable to be on the receiving end. I do not like taking from others. However, I do know that my life would be so much easier if I accepted the help that is so graciously being offered from you. Therefore, reluctantly, I force myself to accept help right now.
Being that I do feel uncomfortable, you might consider asking me, “What would be most helpful?” You could even give me specific choices: “Would bringing dinner help? A ride to the doctor? Shoveling the snow? Doing grocery shopping?’”
Please do not just do things for me because it will make you feel better. And please, respect my wishes. For instance, if I tell you it is not a good time to come visit, please do not come anyway because it is a convenient time for you.
I always appreciate a kind voicemail, email, text or card just to let me know that you are thinking of me. You can ask me how I am managing. Tell me that you are available to be of support throughout this journey. Very often, the use of mere silence, actively listening and just being present for me is what I need. It is also so reassuring when I hear from a well-meaning friend, “I am here for you.”
Please do not tell me “Look on the bright side,” “Things could be worse” and definitely not, “Everything will be all right.” You have no idea. You definitely are not my doctor and definitely not God. Do not quote to me statistics or feel the need to tell me that my cancer is “the bad one.”
Your belief is not mine. How and if you use your faith to cope through challenges is very different from how I might be. Sometimes I feel angry with God, sometimes confused. I try very hard to recognize God’s grace in my life right now. Please do not lecture me and tell me why you speculate God did this to me, unless I specifically ask you for advice or ask you to provide your insight. Very often when I question God’s ways it is not because I am seeking an intellectual answer; rather, it is an expression of my emotional pain. I am seeking empathy, not answers. Telling me that you will pray for me often makes me feel remembered and comforted.
Unfortunately, there is no one official guide book when it comes to knowing the “right” thing to do or the “right” thing to say, because we are each individuals who experience and interpret things differently based on who we are. The sentiments and suggestions written above are mine but I know they are felt by so many others in similar predicaments as well. My intention is not to make anyone feel bad, but rather to improve their interactions in these sensitive moments. Thank you for taking the time to read this. It is my hope that we can all learn from each other.
By Debby Pfeiffer
Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, New Jersey. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected].