Being in the dump out circle
February 1, 2021 4:10 AM   Subscribe

My daughter's best friend from school (10+ years ago) is going through a serious illness (potentially terminal) and I connected with her mum, who I knew not at all, and asked what I could do, and our coversation has become nearly daily, where I'm part of her "dump out" circle. I'm honoured, and I've learnt a lot from metafilter but please, from those who needed someone to dump out to, what's the best things I can do, and things I should avoid?

This lovely woman (as I have discovered) is the backbone of the family while her adult child goes through cancer treatments, and her husband goes through prostate cancer therapy.

Though I know I miss social cues because I'm autistic, I think her conversations online with me give her some relief, because I'm not close enough to the family to say "oh, that makes me feel terrible" but the length and sentiment of replies make me think I'm helpful in some ways for her to say what she needs to.

However, my daughter (who is very smart and taught me personal boundaries and appropriate support) has reminded me on several occasions when we have serious talks that she doesn't want me to "fix it", she just wants me to listen.

While the conversation with my new friend is completely text-based which suits my interaction style, and I find myself delicately (I hope) making suggestions that I hope will ease some aspect of this family's pain, I have also read, "just listen".

It's hard to "just listen" in text. A couple of yeah," I get what you're saying" after she's sent me 8 paragraphs of the current situation just doesn't seem right.

So if you have been or needed a text "dump-out-of-the-circle friend", and you have any tips, I'd appreciate it.

(She has refused all concrete offers of help, but with such grace that I don't feel like I did wrong by offering. I sympathise with each family member's situation. I ask but don't advise things like "have you thought of edibles - I might be able to source materials and recipe from my yoga teacher"; she replies her neighbour who is in remission has a crop.", they don't need financial assistance but grateful for offer, no flowers becaude family member gets hayfever. I think I'm doing okay even if autistic because her messages get longer and longer).

Any tips you can give me to support a mother and family going through a terrible time, please.
posted by b33j to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What a lovely thing to be doing. I’d just say, don’t feel that you have to match her replies in length, even nearly. In a normal conversation, that’s what you’d probably try and do, very roughly, but this is by nature an uneven situation. It’s enough to find a way to hear and sympathise with the main points in her message, perhaps ask some gentle questions (Not “Have you thought of x?” but more “Oh, I’m sorry, when’s they test scheduled for?”).

And take care of yourself. If you feel the need to dial back and not answer every single day, that’s fine.
posted by penguin pie at 4:32 AM on February 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Never underestimate how powerful 'that sounds awful', 'that sounds so stressful', 'that's really crappy', 'I'm here for you'... are as punctuation phrases for vents. And as above - take care of yourself and this is an incredible thing you're doing. Have you got someone *you* can talk to?
posted by Augenblick at 4:52 AM on February 1, 2021 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: (Thanks, I'm seeing a psychologist every 2 weeks on other matters)
posted by b33j at 5:12 AM on February 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you're doing great already, as others have said, but you're right, it can start to feel a bit robotic and non-responsive to ONLY offer affirmations like "That sounds awful" (from both your end and hers). Don't get me wrong, this stuff is an essential part of it, but I think what you can add on to this is nonjudgmental curiosity. It's a way to show you're listening and you're interested in her experience.

So when she's telling you about one stressful, harried morning full of tests, and she's focusing on how she was almost late to the several different appointments she was trying to juggle, you might let her talk, offer up the usual "Jeez, how stressful!", and then become curious about other aspects/angles, like, "Did you also have to find someone to cover your shift at work?" or "So hang on, you must have gotten your car fixed in order to manage all that. Whoo hoo! When did you get that done?"

Also consider there might be room for you, too, in this relationship. Relationships between people who depend on one another for complementary functions are one of the miracles of life, IMO, because this type of relationship leaves all parties feeling supported as well as useful. That's a combo that adds up to feeling energized by the relationship, rather than you feeling a bit drained and her feeling like a bit of a burden.

Real life example: one of my closest friends is going through a hellish year where her marriage was in trouble, her dad suddenly became incapacitated with Alzheimer's, and she became estranged from her mom. She's been using me as her designated listener for emotional support, but also, she's been teaching me how to draw over this winter + she was my gardening mentor over the past summer. After a couple of months of a one-sided friendship when her shit started hitting the fan, I thought asking her for help with gardening and drawing would not only help me feel like a balanced part of the friendship but would also be an excellent outlet for her to focus on what she loves amid her all-consuming crises. It has been so good for both of us.
posted by MiraK at 6:07 AM on February 1, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes when I am trying to be more of a ‘listening’ friend on text, I focus on empathising and describing feelings (“oh, how xxxx” “that must make you feel xxxx”, “what a xxxxxx situation”) with the caution that they have to be the feelings the person is expressing to you, not the ones you would feel in their situation. Sometimes I will try to restate or sum up what they have said to me if appropriate. (“Ah, so Susie’s appointment schedule is really stressing you out, god, how frustrating, why do the hospital insist on doing it that way.”) You sort of reflect back to them what they are stating, like a mirror. This makes people feel seen, and helps them organise their thoughts and feelings, which is a relief. It’s hard to do sensitively though, so good on you for trying.

If it helps, often times I feel better just for having told someone what’s going on with me, and seeing them take in what I’m saying. If they try to move on too quickly to the fixing, I feel like they don’t want to listen to what I’m saying or that my feelings are making them uncomfortable.
posted by Concordia at 6:12 AM on February 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Emoji can be helpful here too. (heart) (heart) (heart)... or sending you/ everyone/ the fam (heart)... or good news (party hat).

On occasion you may want to ask how *your friend* is doing / feeling (e.g. That sounds like a very difficult situation with the doctors. How are you doing/ feeling though?). On other occasions you may want remind your friend to take care of her self, or ask if she's been taking care of her self."

If your friend mentions that there will be a major procedure [on date]... it can be nice to send well wishes the day of that don't require acknowledgement "e.g. sending [person] thoughts/ prayers/ positive vibes today."
posted by oceano at 7:02 AM on February 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've been receiving and giving alot of support lately as I'm working through an disordered eating relapse. Your instinct to avoid giving unsolicited advice is a good one. I personally haven't minded my support people giving the odd piece of advice, but I much prefer when they ask if I would like a suggestion/advice first. The unsolicited advice thing is personally jarring to me when I am reaching out to someone for support - for me when I'm in crisis or having a tough time, it does not make me feel heard or validated.

When giving support, I like the approach mentioned above to mirror back what I'm hearing, saying things like "that situation sounds really (difficult, other emotion I heard)" plus occasional follow up question. The other thing I appreciate people doing is allowing me to express whatever emotions I happen to be feeling, and it being ok to do so without someone jumping in to "fix" how I am feeling. It's something that doesn't come naturally I think to be with someone in their discomfort without trying to change their feelings - at least from what I have seen and experienced. I find it especially difficult if someone says something like "at least (it's not as bad as other situation)" or any thing along thinking positively will fix the problem! When all I need often is to feel heard and validated in whatever I am feeling, and inadvertently end up feeling guilty about why I'm not feeling positive or grateful for this other worse thing.

An important thing to note with ring theory the ring moves outward from you for you, and its important to take care of your own emotions so you can continue to support your friend. Which includes reaching out to your own supports as needed.
posted by snowysoul at 10:52 AM on February 1, 2021

Best answer: Good answers above.... I will add that one thing I do in texting in situations like yours (listening to someone) instead of just saying in words "wow that sounds rough" or something like that, I might send a heart emoji or some other emoji that just says "I'm listening, I hear you." I'm probably autistic too, and I'll add that this probably works better with people you are closer to, so you know more about what kind of emojis might work for them.
posted by matildaben at 12:20 PM on February 1, 2021

Best answer: I want to say there is also a place for delicate suggestions too! If the ratio of listening and support to suggestion is good, the person might actually appreciate your ideas - if they are in fact practical solutions that they hadn't thought of. The test is to see what happens next. If the other person engages with your idea - they like it or they say, "not that but it gives me the idea to try this" then your suggestion is actually helpful. If they say "yes but" and never do anything with your suggestions then you can tell they aren't actually helpful even if it seems like they ought be. The key is really pay attention to how they respond - since you talk to her regularly, you will hear if your suggestions actually get used or not.

Actually, on re-read, you've done this and she's been pretty clear that the practical suggestions aren't landing. So, whatever you doing already in terms of just listening is working. I appreciate that you want to do more but please recognize that what you are doing already is so valued that she is now calling almost daily to get her dose of Vitamin B33J.
posted by metahawk at 12:38 PM on February 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Your ideas are so helpful! I went back and checked and first radiation was yesterday, so I sent a short message hoping it went well, with a heart, and asked if it was a regular schedule (and if it is, I can put that in my calendar to remind me to keep checking in). I think this "self-aware altruism" (or whatever the term is) in that I get good feelings supporting someone (which is helping me while I deal with some other shit). I used to try volunteering but the social anxiety made me feel horrible, so while I thinks its lovely that you think I'm lovely, I know I'm getting a lot out of this relationship. I only wish I'd got to know her when our girls were at school together, because she really is an awesome human being, a lot like you guys really. X
posted by b33j at 4:55 PM on February 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think it is lovely that you are getting some out of this too! It can be very draining to provide emotional support for someone going through hard times, especially if there is nothing you can do to help fix it. Those good feelings will help you avoid burn-out, which is good for both of you since she clearly values the support you have been offering.

Do consider if you need to "dump out" from time to time. I know your situation isn't nearly as bad as hers but that doesn't mean that you might not need to someone to listen to you as you hold so much emotion for her. Note "Listen" can be text or whatever works for you - just a chance to explore what this relationship means to you and help in processing what it is like to be so close to someone who is a mother like and whose daughter is going through such hard stuff.
posted by metahawk at 6:01 PM on February 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just a couple of notes - I've found the "you must be feeling so ___" stuff has a good chance of landing flat, since maybe I don't know what she's feeling and it can feel pushy to people especially if that's not the feeling that's at the forefront of their minds. I find I get that much better response from most people if I either ask the question or describe the situation rather than describing their internal state. "All those appointments to manage and worry about is so hard! Hey, how are you feeling today?"

It *is* good to also have other things to talk about and also it can be extremely meaningful to have someone who actually remembers what you said last week, and who is tracking your calendar and noticing when something difficult is coming up. Asking about that first radiation treatment is a great example! It really helps lighten the feeling of going through things alone.
posted by Lady Li at 9:19 AM on February 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My daughter's friend (R) is having radiation therapy 5 days a week, with weekends off to recover. I contacted her mum (D) to celebrate the end of the first week, and sent a little picture for R - the one that shows the symbol for women (a man with a skirt) and then dresses the symbol in hero garb, with the skirt becoming a cape, and the words, "it was never a dress" (implying, if I have not been clear, that women are super heros), and apparently it gave R a lttle smile. Then D & I talked about marking off the days graphically, she saying 1/6 is done, and me describing how I made a chart for each week of each course of my undergrad degree, and colouring in a week at a time (not as a suggestion but an understanding that recognising what has already been accomplished is rewarding. Turns out D had done exactly the same thing on her kitchen whiteboard - so that was lovely. I offered practical help again, shopping, cleaning, picking up takeaway (because I'm a crap cook), which she refused comfortably, saying they were fine.
Metafilter, I so appreciate your comments to help me support, from a distance, this lovely family. I have something particularly nasty happening in my own family, and being aware that it could be so much worse (I cannot imagine, though I would never say this to D, that watching your beloved child face a rare cancer with only 40% chance of living 15 years more - I have educated myself on R's condition, treatment and long term prognosis so that I understand what D is talking about). Sometimes we talk about how our sweet daughters can be sweet to everyone but us, recognising that it's an indicator of their trust in us that they can let go their anger (even if we don't deserve) knowing that we will still adore them and always forgive them.

I know I'm making this thread too chatty, but I have to wait for my question dealing with my family problem (I asked 2 questions in one day) and my appointment with my psychologist isn't till Wednesday. I can't think of anyone I can tell about, so I'm letting off a bit of emotion here - the dumping out. I thank you all for your compassion, thoughtfulness & wisdom. Xxx
posted by b33j at 9:01 PM on February 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

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