We all know that life’s not unrelentingly wonderful. Of course it isn’t. But right now, I seem to know, or know of, a lot of people who are seriously ill, and even more who are supporting those people, trying to get them well, trying to get them home, or simply trying to get them comfortable.
And it’s reminded me of something that I’ve often thought about during my dance with cancer: and it’s this. It might be lousy out there on the dance floor, with bits of your body crumbling or crumpling, with your sudden inability to do the simplest things, like sleep and eat and breathe, with the way your life has to stop in its tracks while you are forced to do this lousy thing you didn’t ever ask for. But I still think it has to be better than watching someone you love do it.
All the time I was ill, I fully understood what was happening in my body, or at least I fully understood the sensations. I knew exactly where I was in my mind. Somewhere deep inside me I felt strong and safe in the world, even though all hell was breaking loose in my breasts and bowels and sleeping patterns because of cancer and cancer treatment. I was sure that I wouldn’t die. I was clear that I was managing. I felt, somehow, alright despite it all. (Except when I didn’t. But even then, at least I had a full understanding of what was happening.)
But I couldn’t always communicate that well enough. Despite all of my blogging and talking and trying really hard to explain, I knew that the people around me were looking at me and wondering: was I as alright as I seemed? When I said I wasn’t hungry, did it mean I wasn’t hungry or was it a sign of something else: did they need to cajole me into eating or let me be? When I had a big cry, then dried my eyes, said I was all right, and picked up my knitting again, they had to figure out whether I really was OK. My family and friends had a lot to carry: the weight of watching someone they love undergo some fairly brutal treatment; the fact of not really being quite sure of anything; and somewhere, I imagine, the secret fear of wondering whether this was The Beginning Of The End. (I had that one too, but with the comfort that, if I was going to die, at least I wasn’t going to have to live through me dying, if you see what I mean. Selfish, but true.)
So, if you are one of those people who, right now, are watching someone you love struggle – whether it’s with cancer or MS or mental illness or depression or recovery from injury – then I have some things to say to you.
- I know your life must be really difficult right now. It’s OK for you to know that too. Yes, you just have to get on with it, but you can also say – to yourself, or to others – that you are having a difficult time. Just because you don’t have The Thing, doesn’t mean you aren’t affected by The Thing.
- The person you are caring for might be in too much pain or distress or drug-related stuff to express it, but somewhere in there they know you’re there and they appreciate what you’re doing.
- You’re allowed to share the burden. You’re allowed to take the day off and ask someone else to make the hospital visit/ take the meal/ do the shopping.
- Please take care of you. You’re precious and important too.
- Remember that if you’re doing the best that you can do, that’s good enough. Even if it does mean sometimes getting a bit tetchy and tearful and frustrated. That’s part of being human, and your humanity is what’s doing all of the work here.
- Thank you. I might not know you, but I appreciate what you’re doing.
And here’s a tip, that you can take or leave. One of the hardest things about a Big Thing Going Wrong is that it’s easy for everyone to be so busy dealing with the Big Thing that the person gets a little bit forgotten. So, before you next see the person that you’re caring for, think about them before this crisis hit. Think of the things they did, the way they were, the time you shared. And use those memories as the basis for the way you treat them. You’ll both be glad of it.