How to Show Up for People in Tough Times

We discuss how to show up for people in tough times, such as serious illness, loss, or other challenges they’re going through.

Heads up that we talk about some serious personal health issues in this episode with a good bit of emotion and swearing. If any of this is too much for you right now, feel free to skip this episode or come back to it later. 

When people we care about are hurting, we often want to do something to help but aren’t sure how. Life can be tough, and we will all be on both sides of this situation at different times – both showing up for others and asking for others to show up for us. 

Gill graciously shares her own recent health challenges, speaking about them publicly for the first time, to share what’s been helpful and not-so-helpful to her so far. Keep in mind that some of these are her personal preferences, but others will likely be universal.

Gill’s Story

Since December, I had been seeing doctors to figure out the cause of a persistent cough. In late January, I received the shocking and very unwelcome news that I have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with an EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) mutation. I have one larger tumor in one lung and many small nodules in both lungs, as well as a few spots in my bones and lymph nodes, though not in any other major organs. 

I started a clinical trial at the end of February and am receiving treatment with EGFR inhibitors, daily pills designed to target only cancer cells in the body. So far, I’m experiencing some mild but manageable side effects and don’t have any other symptoms, except the cough.

The near-term treatment goals are first, to stop the growth and spread of the cancer, and second, to shrink the tumor and nodules in my lungs to a point where I’m stable and have no adverse symptoms. The ideal long-term goal is to get to “NED” or “No Evidence of Disease” – and I’m focused on doing everything I can to be in the long tail of any statistical bell curves.  

Helpful Ways People Are Showing Up for Me

Again, how you best offer and receive support is unique to you, and these are things I have personally found helpful. I hope some of these ideas give you a good starting point to show up for the people you love.

Loved ones connecting without expectations

  • “Thinking of you” messages: Something I’ve said over and over since the diagnosis is, “We have the best people.” I’ve received so many wonderful messages and emails from friends and family expressing their love, thoughts, prayers and support. I especially appreciate when they explicitly say “no need to respond to this” – which eases my guilt about not responding or responding after a long silence. I read and appreciate everything but have been very slow to reply.
  • Facebook group: Brian and a friend started a private Facebook group for close friends and family, and seeing people’s posts and photos has been a source of comfort and joy. 
  • CaringBridge page: After we recorded this ep, Melia took something off our plate and started a CaringBridge page for me (a task Brian and I have been talking about doing for weeks). This is an excellent example of offering specific, very welcome help!  

Note from Melia: It made me happy to do something concrete to help! For access to Gill’s CaringBridge page, where we’ll post updates on her health and treatment, you’ll register for a CaringBridge account or sign into an existing one. If you’re not taken to Gill’s page, click the link above again once logged in. You’ll be prompted to enter your email and a note requesting access; you can let us know you’re a Semi-Together listener. You’ll receive an email invitation when approved.

  • Support from survivors: People who have been through their own cancer journeys – as a patient or caregiver – offering support and resources or just listening. They have been so generous with their time, and it’s really helpful to talk to folks who have been in a similar place.

People offering or contributing to make day-to-day life easier and more joyful

  • Specific offers: I especially love when people are very specific in their offers of help or support. For example: “We’d like to send you a meal this day, is that ok?” or, “Do you need someone to go to your appointment with you?” It’s caring and well-intentioned to say something like, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do” (I’ve done many times), but it can be hard to think of the thing you need and then ask for it.
  • Gifts: Sending beautiful, useful, or comforting things, like flowers, favorite snacks, self-care items, a soft blanket, games, books, a super-soft stuffed sloth, playlists, etc.
  • Checking first: Asking before sending cancer-related resources 
  • Offering help for family to come visit (transferable airline miles, places to stay)
  • Offering to chip in for house cleaning, grocery delivery (this could also apply to child care, yard care, laundry service, etc.)
  • Dropping off or sending food or gift cards (Amazon, Uber Eats, Glovo)
  • Sharing funny or cute things to make me laugh. Talking about silly things (like our latest reality show obsessions) as well as cancer things. 
  • Lightening the load: Volunteering or being eager to be tasked with doing helpful things that would be overwhelming or exhausting (communicating updates to shared circles of friends, or organizing friend outings)

People just being there  

  • Loving presence: I’m so grateful for loved ones who are willing to be with me through all of this – accepting all the emotions as they come and go – whether that’s in person, on a video call, in a text or an email. It’s hard to know what to say in these situations, and it may feel like you’re not doing anything, but your presence is a real gift. As Brené Brown says, to “sit in the dark” with someone and hold safe and accepting space, is such a loving action.

From Melia, for those who don’t know Gill as well but would like to show their support:

  • Send her a message through our Facebook or Instagram (@semitogether) or email her at podcast@semitogether.com. A simple “Just wanted to say that I’m thinking of you — no need to reply,” means a lot.

  • Offer recommendations for things that are on the lighter side these days: “Things that make me laugh or are comforting or sweet, TV shows, books, movies, music, playlists, that kind of thing.”

  • Send thoughts from afar: Whatever your religious or spiritual tradition, close your eyes and picture yourself sending her prayers, healing energy, white light, or love. Each little gesture matters.

  • Please ask before sending any health-related information. The answer may depend on how much bandwidth she has at the moment, though she always appreciates the intention.

The Ring Theory of Support

We both read a great article in the LA Times a few years ago, “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing,”  that talks about the Ring Theory of supporting people going through hard times. 

Here’s an excerpt:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma… Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma…

Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones… 

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

The basic concept is: comfort IN, vent OUT.

Get In Touch

What are some of the ways you show up for others or others show up for you during tough times?Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com or send us a voice memo.

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