“What to say to someone who’s sick” – A blog response

Ideally, you would be able to take the time to learn good communication skills (see below) before talking to your sick friend/family member.

But what if you don’t have time to learn good communication skills before visiting or talking to your sick friend/family member?

If you are going to visit a sick friend or family member very soon and you want some ideas about what to say, my suggestion is to focus more on your presence than your words. Your presence speaks volumes. Try to focus on listening to the person with 100% of your being. In the moments that you are with your friend or family member, listening to him or her should seem like the most important thing in your life. If your mind wanders to your “to-do list” or to some concern in your life, catch it, and focus on being there for your friend/family member. If there is an “awkward silence” don’t worry about it. Breathe deeply during the silence and then let your friend or family member know that s/he doesn’t have to say anything, you are there to support him or her in whatever way possible and you are glad just to be there with him or her. If you can’t think of anything to say then be honest, say something like, “I care about you and I’m here for you, even if I don’t know what to say or do.”

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A blog response to “What to say to someone who’s sick,” an article by Bruce Feiler.

I went through hell when I was really sick and in a lot of pain, but it was my own unique hell.

The blogosphere tends to oversimplify the complexity of serious issues with clever titles and tips. Five ways to resolve conflict. Ten ways to be happy. Eleven ways to be unremarkably average. Just read a blog post and your life can be so much better afterwards. But I was surprised to read a clever tip list like this in the New York Times concerning “what to say to someone who’s sick.”

The author, Bruce Feiler, a cancer veteran, wrote two lists with the do’s and don’t’s of communicating with friends and family members who are ill. I have no doubt that Feiler had the best of intentions in writing his article. He went through the hell of cancer and he didn’t want others to have to deal with the same kinds of frustrations he dealt with. But Feiler forgot that his hell was unique and that his preferences as a patient were unique.

Let’s start with his first “don’t” tip, “What can I do to help?” Feiler thinks this question unnecessarily burdens the patient. But that is just his opinion. Personally, I loved when friends asked me this question because I was often in need of help and it was hard for me–Miss super independent–to admit it. When I was severely ill, I frequently needed a ride home from the hospital and I was so glad when someone asked me what they could do to help. “Pick me up,” I would respond. Sometimes I had to take a taxi, if it was, for example at 6am or if I couldn’t find a ride. It meant a world of difference to me to have a friend or family member pick me up instead of taking a taxi. I basked in the care and warmth of my friend/family member the whole way home.

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Getting through the “why me?” days

I think we all experience moments of wondering why we have to deal with a particular health challenge — what is the purpose of it? We might see ourselves as “abnormal” and wish to just be more “normal.” We might look with envy on others who seem to have it “so easy” and wish that we could have some of that ease. When I did my dissertation research, “Why me?” was a commonly reported thought among women with chronic pelvic pain. Some even wondered why God had given them such debilitating pain and illness.

Sometimes we just reach a threshold of not wanting to deal with chronic illness or chronic pain anymore. All of our excellent coping strategies fall by the wayside because we’re just too tired to apply them. We feel mentally defeated in those moments. And we can’t seem to just talk ourselves out of them. The sense of defeat and demoralization is too strong.

When we are absorbed in the “why me?” of coping with a health challenge, it just seems awful. Suffering isn’t rational! The “why me” comes from the feeling of being sucked into a “me bubble” of despair.

So how do we get through the days in which despair seems overwhelming? Here is what I do: More

Zen medicine – part 2

During a mindfulness retreat at the end of 2000, I caught a stomach flu and began to develop grave symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s colitis). I could not sleep more than two hours at night because I woke up throughout the night to pain in my side, telling me it was time to go to the bathroom. I ate only small amounts of the blandest of foods and I was running to the bathroom all day and all night. I managed to get back to my aunt’s house in Connecticut and the symptoms continued to worsen.

My step-mother called me and told me that she and my Dad wanted to help me get to Indianapolis, where they lived, so I could be under the care of their friend, a gastroenterologist. So she set up a flight within just two days.

I had hoped for a good night’s sleep the night before I traveled but it did not happen. I slept only about two hours and started yet another day feeling exhausted. I knew it would be a particularly long day. The whole trip would last ten hours from door to door. But I knew I would only survive if I focused on my sense of peacefulness. I could carry nothing but that peacefulness. I also knew that I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get through the day. More

Watershed

I wrote this piece about 1 1/2 years ago, on the 7th anniversary of my colectomy surgery. I have been free from Crohn’s colitis flares for over 5 years, though almost 10 years ago, the disease threatened my life.

Seven years ago I was preparing for major abdominal surgery. Friends of mine gathered on two occasions in the few days before the surgery to wish me well with my surgery through song, music, and cheers (literally). They helped me to prepare for the challenges ahead.

It is strange to me that it was seven years ago. Seven years is one-fifth of my life! Indeed, so much has changed since that era of my life. At that time, my health hung on a tenuous brink and every day was difficult…and pain, exhaustion, and debilitation were my constant companions. I was physically spent.

Parts of the day of my surgery I can remember as if they happened yesterday. Parts of that day are a complete blur. And a good chunk of that day is completely absent from my memory and my consciousness; I was under general anesthesia.

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The healing power of being together

We are all isolated at times, especially when it is hard to talk about our inner worlds. Sometimes we may feel like no one understands and no one experiences the same thing. It can feel like the chronic condition creates an enormous social barrier. But actually, there are a lot of us out there, dealing with the same kinds of difficulties related to trying to function “normally” in a society that often stigmatizes people like us. When we are together, we share a great power in taking back the power to define our experiences and define what is “normal.” There is a great power in being together. More

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