Others’ Suffering and What to Do

I just read a post called “Suffering Well With Others” and I wanted to write a comment. It’s an excellent post, full of wisdom and redemption. But when I went to write the first thing coming out of my fingers was “This has always been something I have done well.” I erased the sentence before I had finished. I stopped. Was it true?

My first thought was of an acquaintance whose sister had been murdered by a husband who got away with it. The police didn’t even take him in for questioning. I told her, “Call me anytime. Day or night. I know that anguish doesn’t keep time. I’m a light sleeper; I always have been. Call and I’ll listen or we’ll talk.” I hugged her or she hugged me. We held on tight and we have been good close friends ever since.

Of course doing the right thing isn’t always obvious to everyone. (Not even to me, despite what I was writing as a comment.)

When I was in the hospital trying desperately not to lose my baby (I didn’t.), no one knew what to do for us so no one did anything. My husband talked to me about his anger. I told him they just didn’t know what to do. I don’t know which of us came up with the idea of writing a letter, but he wrote one, cleared it with me, and read it to them when they came over for the weekly gathering at our house that hadn’t changed even when I went in the hospital. He told them of his fear for me and for our baby. He told them he was terrified of being a single father. He gave them specific things to do, I remember. Call him every day. Ask how I was first. Go visit me. Baby sit so he could sit with me. Pray. They listened very well and did all that. When I went into labor again in the hospital on 24x the normal dose of tributaline my sister called around to find them; they were at someone else’s house. And every single one of them came to the hospital. Everyone of them was outside the door when we found out that they were going to have to operate even though we didn’t think the baby was ready. Every single one of them was praying. And despite being without oxygen for eleven minutes, our baby is healthy and thirteen today. (Thank you, God, and friends.)

Sometimes when you are the one suffering, you have to tell others what you want from them because they don’t know. No one in our group had a life threatening illness in their immediate family. No one in our group had almost lost their baby. They cared but they didn’t know what to say so they said nothing. (That’s better than saying something bad; I think the Curmudgeon is right about that.)

Sometimes doing or saying something bad doesn’t only hurt the person in crisis, it destroys a friendship.

Six months after the baby was born I almost lost my husband. He was in the hospital dying, the doctors told me. They couldn’t kill the germs. I asked a friend with eight children to watch the babies for me. I figured she had so many she would know what to do with them. After an hour she called me to come and get them. “They need you, ” she said. I was so angry. Our friendship ended over that choice she made. In my mind she made the choice to end our friendship when she told me to come get my children, who were fine and would be living with me till they were grown, while my husband’s life was leeching out of his body. She wasn’t even caring for them but had passed them off to other friends at a basketball game. Never do that. If your friendship survives, your friend is a better person than I am. She thought she knew which of my priorities was more important and she made the decision for me, or she tried. I found someone else to care for the children (God bless you, N.) and returned to R’s side. That day I wasn’t thinking clearly, but N offered to watch the kids. She knew what it was like to almost lose a husband. Thankfully R was healed. He lived. But that friendship with B, it’s dead. You can say and do the wrong thing when someone is suffering. Apparently it is easy.

Recently I read a post, sorry I don’t know which one or I would link to it, that said to ask the person suffering what they wanted you to do. In the post the person talked about going to a friend’s house who was on bedrest and asking the friend what she wanted done. The friend was startled. Many people had come over to help, but they had all done what they thought needed to be done. The friend’s mother had cleaned the basement, despite the fact that the friend didn’t care and wouldn’t see the basement for months anyway. It’s good advice. If someone is in crisis ask them what they want you to do. (Hah. I found it. Yeah for Google Blog Search. It’s The Common Room’s “Serving Others for Their Good and Not Our Own.”)

Folks in crisis may not know what they want you to do. That’s often been my experience. When people are in a crisis, of grief or illness or any such, they often don’t have any brain cells left over to figure out what needs doing. So ask.

Do they have dinner? Can you bring them something over? In fact, unless they have too much food, you should pretty much insist that you want to bring food over. But do cook what they like. If they’re vegetarian, don’t make barbeque. If they don’t like spicy food, don’t do Indian curry. Make sure you tell them what day and time you’d like to drop off the food, so you can be sure they’ll be there, or come sometime when they will be. And don’t ask them later if they ate it. Their appetite may be gone. Or they may have fed the food to the dog. What should it matter to you? You made the effort and they know you care. That’s the important points. Let the rest go.

Do they need the lawn mowed or the laundry done or some chores around the house taken care of? My mom was always great about going in and cleaning people’s houses. Women in the hospital coming home to a clean house is a joy. Clean sheets- fresh, crisp, and all made up- are a treat. I would think that it would be the same for someone in any bad situation.

But don’t take that clean house as an opportunity to clean out a loved one’s belongings, unless you were specifically asked to do it. Don’t think getting rid of his clothes will be a blessing. I would want to keep R’s shirts around so I could feel close to him. I might not wear them out, but I’d wear them at home. Big, comfy, roomy shirts which he wore once would be a joy to me. And, if someone asks you to get rid of stuff, if it’s very soon after a death, maybe you should not. Take it out of the house, but tell them you’re going to keep it for a few months in case they change their mind. It will be gone, tell them, but if they want to, you’ll have it for x months. Get a storage unit if you have to. Okay, that probably doesn’t apply in a divorce. If the remaining spouse wants you to junk his/her clothes then do that. But for a widow/widower/grieving parent, take the step of clearing it out of their house, but leave it accessible to them. They might want it back.

Now that I’ve written all this, I am reminded that in that year that we almost lost M and maybe me, when we all almost lost R, I wrote a section in our church manual on the topic. I think I will revisit that in a post soon.

Here are the “soon” posts:
What to do in Illness: Talk
What to do in Illness: Gifts
What to do in Illness: Children
What to do in Illness: House
What to do in Illness: Stay at Hospital
What to do in Illness: Visiting