How to Speak to The Afflicted

You bump into a friend, someone you haven’t seen in awhile. He’s lost a lot of weight and looks tired.  You don’t know what’s caused the weight loss and you’re worried he might be sick.

So you say, “How are you?”

You see a woman you worked with awhile back. She’s walking with a cane, which she didn’t use when you were working together. You don’t know what’s happened to cause this.

So you say, “How are you?”

You come across another friend, well, more of a friend of a friend, really, and you seem to remember hearing that they’ve been in some kind of trouble recently, cheating on their spouse was it? Or dipping into the till at work? You can’t really remember.

So you say, “How are you?”

In all of these instances, what has happened to cause the weight loss, the need for a cane or the scandal is actually none of your business. And you have no way of knowing if the person in front of you wants to talk about it or not. So you ask them, just like you ask everyone else you meet on your travels, “How are you?” And you avoid what a friend of mine calls the moonie eyes. Oh, please, do your best to avoid the moonie eyes.

That gives people who are going through some stuff  the chance to either talk about it by responding, “Well, I have cancer/I was in a car accident last month/I’m facing jail time,” or, “Fine thanks, how are you?”

And if they respond with the illness/accident/legal troubles answer, then you can listen to all the juicy details and offer up your sympathy.

And if they say they’re fine, you have to take them at their word, say it’s good to see them and maybe offer up a mild observation about the weather. And then you move on, leaving their dignity intact even if it’s obvious to you that they’re in complete denial about what’s really going on in their life.

When you’re going through some stuff, people say the most random, bone-headed things to you. They offer up pity when you’ve just finally started to believe your own pep talks. They tell you about someone they know who went through exactly the same thing and either died or triumphed or perhaps seemed to triumph and then died. Have a nice day. They give you advice.

I walk with a limp. And when I say limp, it’s really more of a staggering lurch, but we call it a limp, because that’s easier. I feel self-conscious about it, I’m not used to it yet. Some days it takes all the courage I have to leave the house and go out. In public.  Where people can see me. And say things, like, “You’re still limping!” or “Have you seen a doctor for that?” or “Have you tried marijuana?”

One day, Alan and I were out for our daily walk. We had decided to go out every day, just as if we still had a dog, as soon as Alan came home from work, no questions asked and for a month or so, it worked really well, until we bumped into a woman that Alan worked with many years ago. She was walking her dog and gave me a look of great concern and said, “I see you’re limping. What’s wrong?”

And I said something like, “Oh, it’s just arthritis….” hoping we could leave it there.

“My grandfather had arthritis,” she said. “In the end, my dad had to bathe him. He had to bathe his own father!!!!!”

And I told her that the treatment has gotten  a lot better since than and I was pretty sure her dad wouldn’t be called upon to bathe me any time soon. And then we blinked at each other awkwardly until her dog, who knew better than to ask personal questions started barking and straining at the leash.

Alan and I haven’t been out for a walk since because I don’t have the strength for it.

I did go to the doctor recently, expecting that maybe trained health care professionals would have a better grasp on what not to say. He was OK, but the first thing his nurse said to me was, “Still limping along, I see.” And when I explained that things had actually gotten better since last year gave me a look that said she believed none of it. And, in fact, when she called to give me my blood test results seemed quite pleased to be able to report that I still have some inflammation going on. It’s a lot less than this time last year, but, hey, I can’t fool her.

When someone you know and care about is going through something, you want to help and that is commendable. But you have to let them take the lead. If they want to talk about it, you can listen, without adding anecdotes from your own life or giving advice. And that’s really hard to do. Especially the advice part, because it seems so helpful and if a handful of supplements or a visit to my doctor will fix you right up, why wouldn’t I offer that up? Helpfully.

You don’t do it, because the instant someone gets sick or injured or is facing some kind of emotional upheaval, the advice comes pouring in from all corners and the person who is sick or suffering has to give their precious energy to countering advice that really doesn’t fit their situation at all.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said the phrase, “But that’s a different kind of arthritis….”

It’s exhausting. And the last thing we should be doing is exhausting those we are trying to help.

What kind of assistance can you offer? If they’ve told you what they’re going through, then you can gently offer something like a cooked meal, or help with the cleaning. Or, can I run some errands for you? And if they say they’ve got it covered, know that they’re grateful for the offer and then back off.

And, as the conversation ends, please, do not offer any variation on “Stay strong.”  Because you have no idea how much strength it may have taken for that person to talk to you and smile all at the same time and if it’s now time for them to go home and collapse in a puddle of tears that may be just what they need to do to further their recovery and you’re not their damned football coach so you really shouldn’t be telling them to keep fighting.  Thank you.

This is not the definitive guide to helping out when someone’s hurting. I’m not, in fact, an expert and even the experts, the good ones, anyway, will admit they don’t have all the answers. This is just a start.

If you’ve been through or are going through some stuff and would like to share things that you’ve found helpful, I’d be so grateful.

 

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