My 30 yr.old friend's mom has stage 4 cancer, how to be there for her?
August 11, 2014 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Hey All! How can I support my friend? I have only know her for 6 months. It is awkward, do I say something and check-in on her mom or not? What is the most supportive thing to do?
posted by TRUELOTUS to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just be honest. "Sarah, I'm so sorry to hear about your mom. I want to be there for you, but I don't want to be a pest. I'll be happy to help you in whatever way I can, I'll even be the one person you can come to who isn't talking about cancer. Just tell me what you need."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:31 PM on August 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

It is rough. I have a friend whose father is dying of cancer at a relatively young age. Basically, I've just said, "please let us know if we can help you in any way." I think if you leave the door open like that in a broad way then they know they can approach you if they need anything and they can set the terms of the help provided. The hardest thing is that sometimes there's nothing much "to do" except to be available and to listen.
posted by bananafish at 2:31 PM on August 11, 2014

Of course you do. One way to be a good friend at times like these is to check in with your friend every 10 days or so with an email or a text saying "Just wanted to check how you are. If I can do anything to support you while you're supporting your mum, I'm ready, willing and able."
posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It really depends on your friend, and how close the two of you are (and there is more to the latter part than just how long you've known one another). Some people like/need friends to check up on them regularly during times of stress; others prefer to be left to their own devices; some like to talk about the issue; others want to talk about anything but the issue. There is no single right answer here, or one right or best way for you to behave.

If you don't know this person well enough to know what she would want, best to ask. I like Ruthless Bunny's script a lot. Make sure that once you've asked, you give her time to process. Don't make your friendship A Thing she has to fret over in this troubling time.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:34 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a great op-ed piece on how to think about what you communicate to your friend, Comfort IN, Dump OUT.
posted by quince at 2:39 PM on August 11, 2014

One warning about being too general is a lot of people will never take you up on your offer. It's better to be specific. I know if someone asked me to tell them if I ever needed something, I wouldn't feel comfortable bringing it up at a later date. So figure out how your friend communicates, and what she's really saying.
posted by Aranquis at 2:48 PM on August 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm 29 and my mother died from cancer 4 and a half months ago. She was sick for less than a year, but it was always serious, though we thought she had more time. I really appreciated people asking how my mother was, it was like another person cared about her. To me it really made a difference, it actually meant a lot to me, that people knew and acknowledged how bad things were - you really notice and appreciate kind words and caring at a time like that.

That might be just me though, I'm a pretty open person. If I didn't feel like talking too long about it, I'd tell my friends, and if I did, we'd chat about it. But I was always glad they asked. So then I think my friends felt comfortable saying "if you don't want to talk about it, I understand, I'm just checking on you"..etc. Even some people who didn't know me that well inquired about her whenever they saw me, and I appreciated that so much. When something is that awful, it felt good that other people took it seriously too, and cared. Again, just me.
posted by cornflakegirl at 2:57 PM on August 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Here's what I do. It's often very appreciated, but it occasionally rubs the wrong way (it depends on the person): I change nothing. I treat them like nothing unusual has happened (even if they're hooked up to machines, etc etc.). I talk about lots of stuff, not just about illness. In other words, I treat the person like a normal person, rather than a tragic figure. The more shock/sympathy I'm feeling, the more normal I make myself a gift.

To explain: if my lifespan's going to be shortened, I'd want to experience as much actual real life as I could possibly cram in, with all the zest and humor and even banality that involves....rather than pre-expiring my personhood by transforming into a different person ("Sick Person"). I'd be bitterly disappointed if my friends and loved ones deprived me of any portion of the social normalcy I had left.

And most people seem to agree, and appreciate it greatly. But, again, those invested in feeling like tragic figures bridle at such treatment. I try to pivot quickly when I see this, but, again, sometimes I wind up rubbing the wrong way a little before I notice. My bombastic, higher-energy approach doesn't fit in among all the soothing, nervous, awkward voices, and some people don't understand my approach.

The safest way to go is to be very quiet, very sympathetic, very soft and soothing and careful, just barely masking your awkwardness and discomfort - a completely different sort of relationship than you'd previously had with this person, effectively treating them as a stranger. That's what most people do, and it offends no one.

So if you want to be safe, do that. If you want to help, talk to the person, not to the situation/illness/dramatic narrative. Give them more of that precious dwindling stuff. It's anything but "banal" to them. But, warning: it's very difficult to return to normal discourse after cautiously going the other way. So it's a decision you need to make right away.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:03 PM on August 11, 2014

My father has terminal cancer. I sat on this news for a while because I am a private person. I spilled the beans a couple weeks ago. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all the people who have reached out just to say "How's your dad? How are you doing? I'm so sorry to hear it, please let me know if there's anything I can do. Fuck cancer." Etc. I have no expectations from anyone to actually do anything for me or my family. But receiving well wishes and some sort of acknowledgement that I'm going through a shitty time is making the experience less surreal and nightmarish.

I would strongly recommend reaching out, sincerely, and just asking after her mom and letting her know that you're sorry to hear the news. Ask if there's anything you can do. Do this every now and again, but don't start treating her like a Special Person. People with dying parents don't like that. But we really do love getting well-wishes.
posted by bluejayway at 4:29 PM on August 11, 2014

OK, wow. thank you so much! this was really helpful :)
posted by TRUELOTUS at 6:24 PM on August 11, 2014

If/when your friend gets very involved in her mother's care, make some concrete offers of help. If her mother is out of town, offer a ride to the airport or to pet sit/water plants or if you can stock her fridge when she is comes back. (hooray for the friend who drops by with a fresh carton of milk for the breakfast cereal when we just got back from two grueling weeks in the out-of-state hospice) If her mother is local, offer to run errands for her and/or her mother. Groceries, pharmacy, anything that a relative stranger can do that would be one less demand on her time and energy. Especially you make it clear that it is not a big deal for you to help - I'm going to be out running errands tomorrow, is there something I can get for you?
posted by metahawk at 6:27 PM on August 11, 2014

A grief group I attended recommended that grieving people mentally divide their friends into (I forget the exact names, but something like) Emotional Support, Practical Help, and Recreational Fun -- the idea being that if the grieving person needed to cry on someone's shoulder, they should call on an Emotional Support person; if they needed to take their mind off their grief, they should call a Recreational Fun person; if they needed a batch of food made and frozen, they should call the Practical Help person.

A lot of bad feelings during grieving periods can come from the wrong friend being asked to do a task.

So it might help to figure out which one or two of those descriptions you're good at, and offer that when you check in. Would you be good at getting coffee and listening to her talk about her feelings? Would you be good at taking her to the movies and out for drinks and thinking about something else for an evening? Would you be good at helping her cook a bunch of meals for her family to freeze? You can use your own examples, but I think offers of help are more sincere when they're specific and believable.
posted by jaguar at 6:58 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a friend, now a widow, who gave me the gift of asking for what she wanted, because I was being awkward. She said, friends just started dropping off the face of the earth, just when she needed distraction most of all. She said: Tell me stuff that's going on in your life, even the little things. That way I can live vicariously through you.

SOmetimes people don't know and can't work up the energy to make up their minds abour what they want. Particularly when what they feel fluctuates so strongly. It's hard work, even when you're not grieving - imagine all your friends suddenly started asking you what kind of friendship you need from them! So you could make it easier and ask her: hey, is this what you want? Or would you rather I do this? Either way I'll call you once a week to see if you want to talk, okay?

Then, be there. Don't let awkwardness drive you away.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:19 AM on August 12, 2014

I lost my Dad to cancer last year and so wanted to offer some perspective.

It all depends on what sort of friendship you have but provided it's not a super casual one

- Check in with her often. Do not disappear from her life. Some friends did this to me, to give me "space" at exactly the time where I needed their presence.

- Follow her lead. Make it clear to her that you are open to talk about it or not talk about it. If she wants to just hang out and watch silly movies, it's ok. If she needs to vent, let her vent.

- I realize this is different from person to person, but - show some initiative. Call her sometimes, do not expect her to always be the person to reach out. I have had many friends tell me to call them any time when I needed to talk, and it was nice, but... sometimes it's hard to pick up that phone and call when you called a week ago, and you feel like you are being a burden - it's much easier to make that call IF the person you're calling has followed up with you in some way after that last conversation.

- Follow-up. If she told you about an appointment that she was nervous about, send her a follow-up text or something. Do not necessarily ask her how it went, you could just send a "thinking of you" text the next day.

- Do not be afraid of messing up. You are not a mind reader, and you don't have to be. Just being present for her is a big, big thing. More important than doing precisely the right thing, which is impossible.

Thank you for asking this question!
posted by SecondSock at 2:46 AM on August 15, 2014

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