Last night I got an e-mail from a friend who had written to tell me some horrible news. He would’ve called, he said, but 11:15 came and went and it was too late to call. This is the kind of news you don’t ever want to hear through any form of communication. It’s the kind of news you dread knowing you’re going to hear if your phone rings after 11:00 p.m. And it’s the kind of news you will always remember where you were when you first heard about it. This news is a true blow to our friendship circle that goes back more than twenty years for me and many more for others. So this afternoon as I scrolled through my unread e-mails from yesterday, I realized I needed to hear my friend’s voice to help me feel like I wasn’t alone while I processed the news.
You see, one of our friends was just diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer, and unless the chemotherapy is able to shrink the tumors enough to remove them, we will lose him. I was speechless. What can one say? All the usual thoughts passed through my mind, “He’s so young and healthy”, “How could this happen to such a great guy?”, and “What about his family? He has two kids. How will this affect their lives?” Those are things I can’t control, and in times like these, we ask questions that usually have no answer. But we want to have a feeling of control in our lives, right? When a trauma such as this occurs, I need to feel like there is something I can control. For me, all I could think was “What can I do?” “Is there anything I can do?” I asked. “Just send him a message to let him know you are thinking about him,” he replied.
The grief that arose from this news made me recall other situations when I had the same reaction. Whether it be hearing the news of someone else being diagnosed with a terminal illness or the death of someone, all I want is for someone to just tell me what I can do. I want to fix it. I want to help. Logically, I know there is nothing I can do to affect his cancer, but there is a psychological need to feel like I can do something. I am sure we have all been in these situations, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels the need to ask if there’s any way I can be a part of the solution…to be a part of the healing. The ways we want to be supported looks, feels, and sounds different for each one of us. How, then, do we ask our loved one what he/she needs without adding another layer of stress to life as they now know it?
Last year we had a scare with my dad and prostate cancer. Fortunately, all of the testing came back negative via the biopsy. But I felt like I was holding my breath for days waiting for those results. What do you do when someone you love is in limbo? What do you do when you find yourself in that same situation? When I had laser surgery to remove some tumors fifteen years ago, I was in a state of shock. What would the results reveal? How would I deal with the diagnosis if they weren’t benign?
In the same vein, how should we reach out to someone when they are immersed in a new reality that will impact everything and everyone around him or her? What is the “right” thing to say? What is “acceptable” to do? I never want to be a burden as I tiptoe my way through these unanswered questions. As I wrote in a previous post about my chronic pain, it’s just so nice when someone reaches out and does something nice without asking. I’m so consumed with managing my pain and spasms that I just want someone to do something for me. Perhaps, that’s the case with others. I don’t know. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.
In my ideal world full of hopes and dreams, when I am told bad news about someone I care about, all I want is for someone to just tell me what I can do for that person. And I’ll be there, no matter how that presence looks or sounds to whomever needs it. If only I had the magical power to fix every obstacle and challenge that came my way. To pull a Samantha from “Bewitched” and automatically change one’s reality from bad to great with just a twitch of my nose. What can I really do, though? I can offer my love, and sometimes, that is good enough.