Helping your friends help you

If you're dealing with a life threatening or terminal illness then telling your friends can be tricky.  If you've experienced this, you'll probably have discovered that you get a range of reactions, not all of them helpful. 

Let's take a look behind the scenes at what's going on here, and draw out some insights on how you can help your friends to help you.

We'll step inside their head, take a look at what comes out of their mouth, then look at how you can take the lead...


Let's step inside their head

No matter how you approach this, it's going to come as a shock, and at one level there's little you can do to soften the blow. How someone reacts will depend a lot on what end of life issues they have had to face themselves. Perhaps they've had a friend or close relative die prematurely, perhaps they suffer their own share of health anxieties, or perhaps they're scared thinking about death in general.

Here's some common reactions:

  • You get "the look"... pity/fear/confusion in their eyes
  • They cry
  • They look really awkward and don't say much
  • They immediately jump into "advice" mode (see later)

It also depends on their relationship with you. Close loved ones are likely to be scared for you, those more peripheral may think first of themselves and their own issues. 

Then, of course, after the initial reaction, there's what happens next... The sum of their life experiences to this point will have a significant effect on how things move on from that initial conversation. You may well find that some previously close friends start to keep a little distance - this is all to do with them, and not you!

Here's some common reasons people may stay away

  • They just don’t know what to say
  • They think they’ll be too emotional
  • They simply cannot handle seeing you suffer
  • They just don’t want to think about their own mortality

On the other side of the coin, you may find that other connections naturally draw closer as they have experiences and inclinations that lead them to help and support you. 

What comes out of their mouth

If you have what may be a terminal illness, I can almost guarantee that you will be offered the following pieces of advice at some point. Please accept them as well-meaning but don't listen to them.

I know <<person X>> who had the same thing, they took <<miracle quack cure X>> and now they're better

Yup, I've heard that cannabis oil cures cancer as well, and dozens of other great ideas. Truth is that cancer research has decades of investment, thousands of clinical trials and some of the best minds on the planet working on therapies. Cancer is over 100 different diseases with many treatment options for each that individuals respond differently to...If it was that simple, your doctor would have told you... really.

OK, you might think that, but may choose not to say it.

Make sure you stay positive!

Really?  Why?  Where's the clinical evidence?

I'm not saying that being positive is a bad thing.. but if you think that not being positive will hurt your treatment then when  you do feel low, you may start to worry that you're harming yourself, and hence get pushed into a downward spiral of anxiety. I cover this in another article, but it's OK to be miserable at times.

You can fight this

Hmm...   When it comes to cancer in particular we hear all the time the language of "battling cancer" / "kicking cancer in the head" or whatever your local variant is. Let's think for a moment if this is helpful language.

Firstly, outside of choosing the best medical care, and following instructions, your prognosis is not in your control, and you may well feel like a victim in the fight rather than a participant!

Next, if you think of it as a battle, then it's really not a level playing field - we all lose eventually: there is only one way out.

Thirdly, even if you beat the odds, and get more life than you expected, you may come out fairly battered and bruised and not feel like a winner.

If you feel the language of 'battle' is helpful to you, do keep it; but please don't feel obliged to follow the hype and "battle along".  My personal opinion is that there is far more helpful language around acceptance. This is not defeatism, it is being open to the experiences coming your way and making the most of the rest of your life. There's lots written on this, including an article by me.

Taking the lead

So, we've taken a brief look at some of the reactions you may get when you share your news with friends and loved ones, and since some of it is not all that useful, you may find it helpful to take a lead in your engagement with others.

Here's my rule number 1:

Encourage your friends and loved ones to support you in the way YOU choose to be supported

You've probably figured this out already, but THEY are not in your situation, THEY do not know how you feel and THEY likely do not know exactly what you need.

OK - every rule has exceptions, a close loved one may well be going through an emotional wringer every bit as bad as yours, and sometimes a good friend will need to intervene to get you out of a dark place, but most often you will know what you need so you can take the lead in getting the support you want and need.

So the question is how do you do this?

First contact:

When you tell them your news, subtly tell them how to respond as well. One way to approach this is to prepare a brief 'elevator pitch' that says in your own words the things you want and the things you don't. If you make it easy for them to respond so they're as comfortable as possible from the start it's a great opportunity to keep the relationship on a positive footing.

Here's an example:

Hi Sarah, I've recently had some really bad news - I've been diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma which most likely means I won't live for more than a few months. I know this is a shock and pretty horrible,  but I've got a great medical team and an end-of-life coach so I'm making the best of the situation. My biggest ask is that you treat me as normal, I'm still the same person. I'm sure you're upset and I understand that, but please don't walk on eggshells around me. If you've got questions, do ask, just don't be weird about it. 

Regular Contact:

Once the news is out there, you'll want to gradually shape a plan, depending on how your support community responds. You may find it helpful to informally assign 'roles' to people who look like they want to help but don't really know what to do. Think about:

  • A partner for medical appointments.
    These can be tough and emotional, so having someone who takes the notes and remember to ask the questions can be invaluable
  • Serious conversation friends.
    People who are coping well with your news and can be available when you need the serious chat to talk through options or difficulties you are having
  • Relaxation friends
    Who've got the emotional makeup to set aside the big picture and just relax. Ideally ones you can tell death jokes with if that's what you want

These are just examples, you'll no doubt come up with other roles and it's not like you'll turn it into a rota - but the concept can help your friends to help you.

So, in conclusion, when you tell family and friends it's not going to be easy task. It's easier if you are prepared, and take the lead in your interactions to help them help you.

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