Advice, Help and Support (Heinous Little Cells pt. 2)
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
This piece originally appeared on Medium in 2019.
A few years ago, I saw these awesome cards on Etsy. I was struck by how honest they were. I was captivated by the thought that not always knowing what to do or say when someone is ill is universal. That it wasn’t just me. It was also helpful to know that sometimes it’s okay to be a bit irreverent and that a little bit of levity can go a long way.
These cards and their pithy snark would pop into my head any time someone I knew was ill, but I never felt comfortable conveying the same type of sentiments because I just didn’t know how the other person would take it. I do remember saying something that I initially thought was funny to Stacy upon hearing of her cancer diagnosis and then cringing inwardly. For days. As time has gone on, we’ve taken to joking about it more, but at first, it felt wrong and disrespectful.
Bossy pants image: Shutterstock
After my initial reactions to Stacy’s breast cancer, I realized that in the past, I relied on what amounts to advice-giving. I knew doing this was wrong and it felt wrong, but I often felt I had nothing else to offer. I had been ill myself for a while and advice ran rampant in the online support group I was in. While I understood that people thought others could benefit from their experiences, I was astounded at how confusing it could become (what IS the right thing to do??) and just how willing people were to suggest everything under the sun (CBD oil para todos!) without having an accurate understanding of how another person’s illness is truly presenting. It made me extremely uncomfortable to read these posts, and any time I pointed out that it may not be a good idea since the person doling out the advice wasn’t, you know…the other person’s doctor, I was practically drawn and quartered. I stuck around through my surgery, because the support part of it was helpful. It was good to know I wasn’t alone. I unfollowed after because my discomfort at seeing people basically throw shit at the wall in their efforts to help became too much. Such is life in the internet era. I then had to examine the way I approached another person’s illness or struggle. I wanted to be careful to avoid advice-giving and in the space without it, I found I wasn’t always sure what to say. Admitting that out loud opened up space for a whole new conversation, one that has been deeper and richer and more meaningful. It also opened up the space to actually help and support.
I’m here with you image: Shutterstock
I’d like to say I thought long and hard about how to best approach my friend’s illness, but that would be a lie. What I did was proceed by doing things that felt less like advice-giving. We talked on the phone. We texted often (and still do). I offered to help. I gave my support. When my help and support were accepted, I felt less helpless. Maybe that’s where the impulse to offer advice comes from — feeling helpless. I am pretty sure that’s where it came from in me. I am also pretty sure that it came across as arrogant at times. And that’s gross to me. Especially when it’s unsolicited.
I had to look at what helping and supporting really meant in a whole new way once I realized that I would otherwise come up empty — the friend equivalent of ‘thoughts & prayers’, something I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with. If I wasted time wringing my hands because I didn’t know what to do, I would regret it horribly. So, I offered to help. Need a chemo buddy? I can do that. Need someone to stay up late at night and cry with openly and safely? Done. This feels much more natural to me than searching for ways to advise my friend to move forward: “Stay positive!”, “You should check out how they’re treating your type of cancer in Kazakhstan!”, “Add some turmeric to your diet!”. What do I know about those things? Zero, zip, nada. I’ve never had cancer, so telling someone in the thick of it to stay positive is lame. And my internet research will no doubt be less helpful than the advice of her doctors. The experts. The only ones who should be giving advice and guidance on how she should proceed.
Life is funny and not always in a haha way. One of the things I enjoy the most about getting older is what I am learning about myself, the way I interact with the people I care about most and what showing up means to me. I just wish the cost wasn’t always so high.
And until I find the right words to say at all times, these words will do.