I was going to write something nice about cooking dinner for your mother on Mother’s Day, but I have had such a barrage of ads and sickly sweet advice about taking care of her for one day a year that I am sick of the whole thing. My own mother’s opinion is that if I can’t be nice to her the whole year, then I can take Mother’s Day and stick it somewhere the sun doesn’t shine. And I think she’s probably right to think about it that way, though it didn’t stop me sending her a card. She thinks her birthday is the most important day of her year, so we’ll move the lovely meal to then… But “looking after” Mum reminds me that we just found out that one of Toseland’s friends has recently had a fistula put in. So for Toseland and all of you trying to work out how to show your sick friend you care now that you know they have a significant medical condition that is going to require ongoing and perhaps difficult treatment. So based on my own experiences of illness, here are five things to help you get started.
Science bit: in this instance, “fistula” describes the joining of a vein and an artery to provide access for haemodialysis. In this form of dialysis two needles are inserted into the fistula and a machine called a “dialyser” sucks the blood from the body through one needle and pumps it back through the other. And just in case, dialysis is the process of cleaning the blood of excess chemicals like potassium, sodium and phosphorous, as well as drawing off the extra fluid that a well person would urinate.
Anyway, this started me thinking about
1. Treat them as if nothing as changed.
I know this news is a big thing for you, but it’s a bit bigger for your friend. They are probably freaking the f*ck out behind closed doors and just want to pretend everything is normal for just a little while longer. So do. Be very brave and act as if everything is completely normal until they are ready to tell you some of the details. In the meantime do a little research about their condition, because one day, seemingly out of the blue, when you ask them how they are they will actually tell you.
2. Do not offer advice
When they start telling you stuff, try to remember that they have been dealing with this while you weren’t looking and have probably explored the options you are about to suggest. Also, remember that you haven’t spent 12 years in medical school and are not qualified to offer advice on medical issues. My go to advice would have been chocolate, but there was a period of time chocolate was on the no-go list (along with bananas, Coca-Cola, oranges and tomatoes). Or maybe a nice bubble bath, but same again – no-go list. One thing that really helped me get through dialysis was standing in the sunshine, but I am not supposed to do that now because my medication gives me a predisposition to skin cancer… So when your friend tells you stuff, just listen and don’t offer advice unless they ask for it.
3. Do not offer help if you are not willing to give it
So often, so many of us say, “if you need anything, give me a call.” And then when they do we find a way to weasel out of it. Your friend would probably not be calling you unless they really needed your help. Similarly, if you make a concrete commitment e.g. take your friend to hospital for their treatment, make sure you keep it because they have enough things to worry about without adding your unreliability to the mix. If you do offer help, try to offer it with limits, e.g. I’m going to the Supermarket tonight, can I get you anything while I am there? Your friend may decline your offer, but don’t let that stop you from offering help as and when things come up.
4. If you don’t hear from them, give them a call.
Dealing with bad health news is difficult. We all go round assuming we are immortal, and it comes as a great blow to find out that actually we are very much mortal. Especially when we find out that perhaps our lives can be measured in months rather than years. We usually need to make some significant choices, often based on information we don’t understand, and we are literally putting our lives on the line. This is really difficult stuff and to be quite blunt, sometimes it does seem as though dying is the better choice. This is usually because our brain chemistry is messed up, but it feels real. It seems logical. So if you normally talk once a week with your friend and they haven’t been in touch, give them a call. Perhaps it’s nothing to be concerned about (like feeling sick from the treatment) but it helps to know that people are thinking about you.
5. Remember their family as well
When we find out someone is ill, our first instinct is focus directly in on them. This is normal and understandable, but when a person is ill it affects the whole extended family, and those closest most of all. Your friend’s partner is up at midnight holding their hair out of their face while they vomit. Their kids are afraid there will be a death. It’s all very tiring for the family. So think about how you might be able to help them as well. Perhaps you can sit with your friend for a few hours while everyone else goes to the pictures and has burgers for lunch.
This list is not exhaustive – how could it really be when we are all so different? I found it disheartening to lose my friends as my illness progressed, so I hope that these tips give you some comfort and the confidence to keep your relationship with your sick friend going.