In late May 2013, our family went from zero to catastrophe in 24 hours: my husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer, even though he’d never smoked a day in his life.
The news was surreal, like someone telling me my husband was turning into a kangaroo. Our family spent the next 4 1/2 years in a terrible twilight, the 21st-century reality of smart drugs and cyberknifing, clinical trials and contrast-CT scans. And then my husband died, plunging my boys and me into crisis.
Throughout it all, friends, colleagues, neighbors, family members sounded the same refrain: What can I do to help? Often, I could only stare in response. How should I know? I could barely remember to buy milk. Our lives were awash in administrivia, while fraught with apocalypse. Yet our community saved us.
Throughout this period, I remained on my feet. Sad — yes. Filled with grief at what we had lost — of course. But under the covers for days at a time — never. I attribute that to the network around us, to the friends I always had to walk with or talk to, to the people always ready to drive me or my husband, John, or the boys anywhere we needed to go; to Letty, who lives down the block, always ready with her Letty’s Chicken whenever we needed it most. So standing here, nearly six years out from that first, fateful chest X-ray, I can say there are things that people can do.
Why does the question — What can I do to help? — go unanswered? It requires two things the person in crisis cannot muster: concentration and the ability to list and then delegate tasks.
And there’s this to consider: sometimes this is a question you should not ask at all. This question is often asked by someone who feels obligated. The friend of a friend of; the mom who drove the random carpool. So before you ask me, ask yourself: Do I really want to try to help? Do I have the bandwidth?
It’s fine if the answer is no. Not everyone can help out. And it’s fine to make that judgment based on how close you are to the family in question, on whether you have a shared, significant history. Better to say, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through,” if you conclude you shouldn’t offer help, but want to say something.
But if you are up for helping, here are a few suggestions, with one important caveat. Each situation is different. Each family is in crisis in its own way. So regardless of what I say, trust your instincts.
First, offer something specific, and the more specific, the better. Not “Can I bring dinner sometime?” Instead, something like, “I’d like to come over on Thursday and bring turkey chili.”
Not “Do you want to take a walk sometime?” Instead, “I’m free this Wednesday morning and I’d like to pick you up at 8:30.”
Alternatively, think about the chokepoints of the family in crisis. They have a kid on a travel soccer team. Offer to drive him to the weekend games. Or the last time you were over at their house, you noticed that the inspection sticker on their car had expired. You know the way to the inspection station: you take the car.
And scan your life for things you can offer. Perhaps you have season tickets to the Nats. Offer them up for Friday’s game. Or maybe you have a beach house. “Would you like to use our house in Lewes the weekend of August 12?”
Remember that what you offer doesn’t need to be expensive or extravagant. “Tomorrow night we are watching the Super Bowl: join us for tacos and ice cream.” After all, no one can be in a crisis 24/7.
From the punishing years of John’s illness and death, often what I remember most were the welcome distractions. For example, an overseas friend wanted to call to get an update on John? Nope — not possible. How are the boys doing? Too upset to talk. Up for some mindless gossip? Score! That conversation I had.
And one of my all-time favorites: “I’m having a cup of tea, watching Audrey learn to roller skate in the driveway. Come join me.” Needless to say, I joined her.
In addition, if you are really serious about helping, you can populate and manage a standby team of helpers, either with an online tool or on your own. Within weeks of John starting treatment, my friend Liz had Team Pater-Kim up and running in skeletal form. Over time, she expanded the group — from a stray friend here to an unanswered text there.
Ultimately, she came up with a comprehensive listing of email addresses for everyone who wanted to help. Thereafter, when I needed dinners, I turned to Liz. She’d put out the word on Team Pater-Kim, and within the hour I’d have a schedule, complete with names and phone numbers. I used Team Pater-Kim for everything from picking up prescriptions to dealing with the dishwasher repair guy. It was much easier for me to be specific with Liz, and much easier for people to help when there was a specific request for assistance.
My final, overarching theme: resist — really resist — the urge to give advice, unless explicitly asked. What nobody understands is that everybody thinks his or her advice is essential, that small “you should . . .,” offered strictly on the QT.
For starters, advice is often contradictory. A genuinely concerned work colleague urged me to eat Paleo diet to stabilize my mood. Two days later, an equally concerned neighbor urged me to pamper myself and eat whatever I wanted, including hot fudge sundaes.
Then there’s the awkward, chance encounter at the grocery store with the woman who previously exhorted me to sign up both my boys for taekwondo. I’d failed to follow her advice. And on and on, in an infinitely expanding matrix.
Our family’s journey through hospice could not be charted by the end of your uncle’s life. So share your experience, yes; but skip the part where you apply your experience to me. On a related note, John may or may not have gotten cancer from eating genetically modified foods; keep that opinion to yourself.
Still, the bottom line is that the impulse to help is worth it, in whatever form you can manage. Just email or text, regardless, and don’t be daunted if you don’t get a response; keep at it.
Also remember that hour 900 is as important as hour 90; don’t just contact your sister-in-law a week after her cancer diagnosis, but six months out as well. I will never forget my high-powered, heavily credentialed doctor friend who walked our puppy twice the day of John’s funeral. Your friend in need will likely never forget you, even if — or maybe especially if — you just end up baking chocolate chip cookies and playing Bananagrams.