Just sitting beside someone who is ill is sometimes all the support they need.
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Did you know that your friends and family are all secret magicians? That they can disappear or materialize at the incantation of one single word?
The magic word?
It’s not abracadabra.
I’ll admit, I was one of those so-called magicians. Last summer, my Uncle Kenny received the news that no one expected: the chemo pill he was taking was no longer working. He could either choose intravenous chemo or let the disease take its course. He chose the latter.
I might not have done a complete disappearing act, but I discovered I was suddenly able to make excuses appear at the drop of a hat. I couldn’t come visit because I had to work (exaggeration). I’d try to make it up to visit as soon as possible (probably not).
This wasn’t the first bouts of awkwardness I’d experienced with my uncle.
A helicopter engineer in the army, he’d been deployed more than his fair share of Thanksgivings and Christmases. I remember dreading my turn to talk to him when the phone was passed around at holiday celebrations–the one opportunity we had to cheer him up while he was away.
My civilian brain never knew the right thing to say. I’d wish him a ‘Merry Christmas,’ and he’d remind me it wasn’t very merry for him. I’d tell him I was looking forward to his visit home at New Year’s, and he’d bark at me for revealing classified information on an unsecured line.
After the cancer diagnosis, I felt even more awkward. I knew even less of what to say. Though he’d been stateside for years at this point, I felt the same uncomfortable silences I’d felt on the phone at all those holidays. But the crazy thing that I realized was: that was okay.
Cancer is awkward and angry and weird and unfair. Yet, it’s important to feel those feelings and still show up every day.
Five nuggets of advice
Luckily, I realized all this in enough time to spend the last week of my uncle’s life with him. I don’t have a manual to help you get through visits with your own loved one. But I can offer a few nuggets of advice, from my experience, that might convince you to head to the hospital a few more times, or hang around a bedside just a few minutes longer.
1. Show Up (For Real)
One of the most important things I realized is that showing up isn’t just the best thing to do: it’s the only thing you can do. You can’t cure cancer. You can’t make anyone come to terms with their own morality. You probably can’t even make anyone feel better. All you can do is be there. Bear witness and be there. That’s all.
2. It’s Not You, It’s Cancer
When you start feeling like your cancer patient friend or family member doesn’t want you around, remember this mantra: it’s not you, it’s cancer. When your loved one becomes angry or irritated, don’t get defensive (it’s not you, it’s cancer). If your loved one happens to fall asleep in the middle of your story, tell yourself that it’s probably not you. (Though you may want to keep your stories shorter and sweeter from now on; your loved one actually doesn’t have to the end of eternity to listen to your saga on your gripes about the carpool lane.)
3. You’re Not Supposed to Feel Comfortable
If you were supposed to feel good about it, they wouldn’t call it cancer. Get ready to hunker down because the only thing you can guarantee with the big C is that things are going to get weird. In fact, if you feel too comfortable, you might be doing this all wrong. That being said, you will feel brief moments of joy, appreciation, and contentment throughout the journey. But they probably still play second fiddle to the awkward moments. Get used to them and be okay with them.
4. Don’t Follow Everyone Else
Remember when Mom asked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?” She’s smart. Don’t tell yourself that it’s okay not to show up because Aunt Peggy hasn’t shown up yet. Definitely, don’t make the excuse that you can leave early because your sister-in-law only stayed for a few minutes–and she’s closer to your cancer-ridden relative anyway. Do what feels right for you. There’s no easy answer, and there’s no how-to book to follow.
5. It’s Not Just About the Patient
Yes, the person with cancer gets to do whatever he darn-well pleases. Yes, it’s important to pay attention to him and shower him with love. But, remember, there are other people who need a little love at this time, too.
I realized that even though my uncle wasn’t conscious most of the time, my aunt needed me there. And so did my dad, my sister, and my cousins. In fact, I needed them there for me, too.
Dealing with my uncle’s death was a way to connect with my own fears around dying. I also know that even though I only see my family a few times a year, I know they will always be there for me.
Faced with the choice between ensuring the members of my tribe live well, and making sure that they die well, I’d choose the latter any day of the week.