Normally, when eating an orange, I like to carefully peel the skin away and enjoy each perfectly portioned slice. Such was the goal when I sat down this evening to cruise a few favorite blogs and catch up on what’s been happening. What I happened to be reading as I started peeling the orange caused one of those nanosecond wince-flinches that resulted in the orange being torn near in half.
It brought forward some painful memories. I was reading one of Cathy Seipp’s posts in which she mentions a few of the ways people have endeavored to “help” her, but which have caused her to bite her tongue.
Since several years before Janet’s death, I’ve been taking notes on how a person might be helpful to someone fighting a life threating disease or injury. This will eventually be part of the book I’m writing to compliment Janet’s book. I do believe everyone means well, but for a variety of reasons, how they express their desire to help often ends up being…well, not very helpful. I made note of some to the goofy things people did in the name of “helping” as well as those things which others did that were exquisitely, even elegantly helpful. Inspired by Cathy’s post, I’d like to share a few of those notes here.
What you offer to do should save the person you are helping their most precious commodity: time. Time to spend how they see fit – alone, with family, friends – not necessarily you. If you are genuinely helpful, it will be appreciated if not always acknowledged, particularly if the one you are helping is in pain.
Think before you do. Is your help really helping? It may make you feel good to spontaneously empty the dishwasher. But when the person you were trying to help has to spend the equivalent amount of time looking for the potato peeler you stashed in a seemly logical place on the other side of the kitchen from where it normally lives, you have not helped. Worse, you have cost them valuable time and left them aggravated.
This leads to the notion of helping in a consistent manner. If the person takes the time to show you where things belong when unloading the dishwasher, then be the dishwasher helper person. Own that chore and do it consistently. The more you can be transparent in your help, the more helpful you actually are. Trust me, this will be noticed and greatly appreciated.
Do some of the unpleasant chores, like empty the trash or clean a bathroom. When ever Janet was feeling particularly bad, there was no want for people willing to rub her feet, massage her hands, read her stories and such – all things I wanted to do because they were enjoyable, things we did normally together and, most importantly, time spent with Janet. Not once did anyone ever pick up a clue and offer to pick up the dog shit in the backyard. No special skills needed for that one. There were a couple of offers to weed Janet’s rose garden. One actually followed through, the other bailed when Janet died before the promised weeding date. Er, that was helpful.
Cooking is a risky way to help someone who is ill. If you are unfamiliar with the ill person’s dietary needs, it’s almost guaranteed to be a miss. (H/T to friends Angie and Bruce who pulled this one off with perfection. But then again, they are each skilled in the ways of paying attention to the details.) If you must, bring canned or otherwise non-perishable food (i.e. it can be kept in a box in the basement for 5 years.) And make sure what you bring is high quality. It may be fancy for your tastes, but show you care enough to see they are eating good when they feel like eating. That 5 pound can of Ol’ Slim’s Genuine Campfire Stew from Costco says “doorstop” and not “I care.” Go ahead and visit that high floutin’ organic food store and buy some quality soups.
Offer to help only in ways you can complete. Leaving a chore half done is most often worse than having never started it. This also implies offering to help only with things for which you are qualified. If you think the Internet is made of tubes, keep your hands off anything electronic. If your experience with cooking doesn’t go much beyond vending machines and a can opener, stay out of the kitchen. And even if you are qualified to practice medicine, perform an aura balancing, read tea leaves, preach the gospel or exercise The Devil, keep your yap shut unless the person you wish to help specifically asks for your help in this regard. It’s near certain you will upset them on some level, even though they may be polite to your face.
If they do ask for help, be attentive to when they have had enough of what you are offering. Tune your senses to recognize when they are tired or increasingly uncomfortable. Then look for other ways to help that get you out of the way. Running errands is a good way to help. You are saving the person time and energy while staying out of their way.
That’s about it for now. Rule of Thumb: If how you are contemplating helping has you feeling a nagging sense of uncomfortable doubt, it’s best to reconsider and cast around for another, simpler way to help. “Thinking of you” cards with a personal note are a good thing.
So this post is for you, Cathy Siepp. Thinking of you and hope this helps.