In the TV series I watched recently, a woman had breast cancer, and was frustrated that everyone kept bringing her banana bread. Her irritation hit home: I have, in my life, given many, many loaves of banana bread, although never specifically for a cancer diagnosis. Am I that predictable? Am I doing the wrong thing? Probably, no one wants friends giving pitying looks, oversolicitous family members hovering around, everyone saying “Tell me if there’s anything I can do.” Do we mean it? Or do we mean, is there anything I can do that won’t mess up my schedule or make me go outside my comfort zone?
Is it helpful to say “how can I help” when someone is in distress? We want to help, but we don’t know how, so we put it on the ill or bereaved person to tell us. Would it be better to say “here’s what I’ll do for you”–banana bread being a version of that– but then what if everyone offers to walk the dog, or do the laundry, and no one offers to babysit the cranky three-year-old? What if people bring meals and you hate their cooking? What if people want to “be there for you,” and you just want to be alone?
Maybe there should be an illness and grief registry. Tick off the things you can provide, and just do them. The person who is already suffering doesn’t need to choose, and many awkward conversations are avoided. Plus, there’s no duplication: you shovel the walk, I’ll pick up the dry cleaning. And so on.
I’ve been on the other end (pneumonia, new babies, dislocated shoulder) and the tendency is to say, I’m fine. We’re fine. We’ll handle it. In the clinic, when I’m seeing distressed patients, I’ll sometimes tell them it’s time to cash in their offers. All those people who offered to help? Time to say yes, please. Time to say that would be great. Why is it so difficult to admit, I’m really struggling right now? I’m really struggling, and I need help. (Personally, I was fine with banana bread drop offs from others).
Messages are admittedly mixed, which may compound the problem. On the one hand: talk to someone, take care of yourself, be careful of work-life balance. On the other: stay/be resilient (translation: stay healthy so you can keep working). Is "being resilient" really that different from "toughing it out," despite this being a whole new generation, more in tune with our needs, and so on?
I think, next time I feel a friend is struggling, I’ll try “would it be helpful if I (insert task)?” Maybe that will make it easier for them to say yes. I won’t give up the banana bread completely; surely someone enjoys it, despite the TV actress? Right?
But I also won’t think, anymore, that giving it means I can dust my hands and walk away.
Hi, I'm Karen. This space is a chance for me to get some of those notebook sessions out there: Motherhood, medicine, writers and writing, the state of the world. Non-published, sometimes non-polished, just a chance to open a discussion. Let me know what you think!